The Cake is Good.

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.

The Ambiguity of David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World.

bowie-in-a-mans-dressIn April 1971 David Bowie released his third UK album The Man Who Sold the World on Mercury Records. This would start the classic period of Bowie’s career featuring the line up Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, that would later become the ‘Spiders from Mars’. For the cover of the album Bowie embarked on a challenging new idea and concept. He was photographed luxuriously reclining on a day bed which is draped in shimmering blue silks and satin, wearing a ‘man’s dress’ of cream velvet covered with blue Art Nouveau flower designs. The dress hugs his figure accentuating his curved hips, open chest and long legs. He wears tight leather knee-length boots which would normally be worn by women. His hair is long, curly and shoulder length, while his arm is raised to adjust his fedora hat. His other hand is limp in which he holds a single playing card, while the remainder of the pack lies strewn across the floor. The room in which he luxuriates, has an echo of Victorian splendor with its red curtains and opium den decadence. The dress he wears was designed by British fashion designer Michael Fish, who also created Mick Jagger’s white dress for the Rolling Stones free Hyde Park concert in 1969.

The cover to The Man Who Sold the World offers an early indication of David Bowie’s explorations with his androgynous appearance and playing with sexual ambiguity. The cover of the album was so provocative and challenging at the time that it was changed for its United States release to a cartoon by Mike Weller depicting a man with a shotgun under his arm standing outside a mental asylum (Bowie’s half brother was receiving treatment in such an institution at the time). In 1972 it was replaced on world-wide release with a rather dull black and white photo of Bowie kicking his leg in the air.

Looking deeper at the ambiguous image on the original Bowie album cover is interesting. The word ambiguity comes from the Latin ambiguus meaning ‘having double meaning, shifting, changeable, doubtful’ . I feel this gives us a clearer sense of why the album cover proved so controversial. David Bowie deliberately set out to shock the viewer by exploring and playing with themes of cross-dressing, sexuality and gender. Some people may have found the image attractive and alluring, others disturbing and repulsive. But the main point is like any great piece of art, it provoked a response. The Jungian psychologist James Hollis says that the spiritually mature person is able to be with the 3 ‘A’s: Ambivalence, Ambiguity, and Anxiety. He says they do not look to a black and white simplicity or dogma, but are able to live a meaningful life within the complexities that life offers. We may be some way off from being able to be accepting of Ambivalence, Ambiguity, Anxiety in our lives, but I feel any attempt to open to these aspects of life can only lead to a more creative engagement with ourselves, others and the world we live in.

“Certainty begets stagnation, but ambiguity pulls us deeper into life. Unchallenged conviction begets rigidity, which begets regression; but ambiguity opens us to discovery, complexity, and therefore growth. The health of our culture, and the magnitude of our personal journeys, require that we learn to tolerate ambiguity, in service to a larger life.” James Hollis, Jungian Psychologist

Black Narcissus : A Study of Repression and Desire

I was a teenager when I first saw the film Black Narcissus, its impact on me was dramatic and it has continued to be one of my favourite films. It is now regarded as a cinematic classic and one of the greatest British films ever made. Released in 1947 Black Narcissus is a psychological drama about the emotional tensions of jealousy and lust within a convent of Anglican nuns in a remote valley in the Himalayas, the nuns are tormented by their past lives and find themselves increasingly seduced by the sensuality of their surroundings. The film is sumptuously shot in Technicolor by Oscar winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It was written, produced and directed by the British team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who also gave us the The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. The cast include Deborah Kerr who plays Sister Clodagh the Sister Superior, who is attempting to forget a failed romance at home in Ireland, Kathleen Byron who plays the mentally unstable Sister Ruth and David Farrar who plays the local British agent Mr Dean with his roguish charms, all bare chest and hairy legs, he makes quite an impression on the nuns particularly Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth.

The film draws out the dramatic tensions between the world of the senses, desire, sexuality, emotion, pleasures of the body and the longing within us to escape, transcend the world of pain and suffering into the realm of spirituality or spirit. The film also offers us a study in repression. As the story unfolds and the steady, ordered life of the nuns start to unravel we glimpse through haunting flashback scenes a painful failed relationship of Sister Clodaghs. The film alludes that her reason for joining the religious order is in someway a response to this event. The other nuns start to also experience an eruption in their psyche, which begins to effect their behaviour. One nun who is in charge of planting a vegetable patch for the nunnery is compelled to plant beautiful flowers instead. Reason and order begin to give way to feeling, the dream world and the senses. 

Carl Jung once said “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” If we look at this in relation to our own lives, anything in our experience that we deny or repress, thoughts, feelings, emotions, all have power over us. If we can allow these aspects of ourselves to be made conscious, then we are less likely to be in the grip of these forces and their potentially destructive influence. A useful image to imagine  is of trying to hold a cork down in water, by its nature the cork wants to move towards the surface and we in our desire to resist It have to engage a lot of energy to constantly try and hold it down.

As students of yoga & meditation we may be drawn to Spirituality. The dictionary defines Spiritual as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things,’. 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 as we see within the Black Narcissus.

Maybe it would be more helpful to stop trying to transcend the world, but make our way through it, acknowledging all that it means to be human and holding any spiritual perspective we may have lightly.   

Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.

Carl Jung

The Jewel In The Lotus

In the late 80’s I discovered, through a friend’s older brother, an album called ‘Great British Psychedelic Trip, Vol. 1’, which was a compilation album of late-1960s rock music. This album contained a wonderful collection of often obscure records by bands that may have only released just one single before disappearing into the mists of time. Tucked away on this record was a song by a band delightfully named Virgin Sleep, who released only two singles in their brief lifetime. Their first single was very aptly titled, for the year of 1967, “Love”. The song itself has a simplicity to it and a certain period charm, with accompanying sitar and strings. But the thing that grabbed my attention was the chanting of the Buddhist mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, that can be heard towards the end of the song, and, according to the advanced publicity, the record was based on this. As far as I can recall this was the first time I had been exposed to hearing a Buddhist mantra, and I have to say, as a teenage boy growing up in Worcestershire, I found it rather exotic and otherworldly, but also very beautiful.

The mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ roughly translates as ‘The Jewel In The Lotus’, and is associated with the figure Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, who is one of the most well-known and beloved figures in Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara is the ‘personification’ of compassion in the world and the willingness to bear the pain of others. I find it interesting to reflect that several years later after first hearing this record I would begin a journey of exploring meditation and Buddhism, so maybe this obscure 60’s single contained a seed that would blossom years later? Now, returning to the image of Avalokiteshvara – what do this Buddhist figure and his mantra communicate? Perhaps, they can be seen as the qualities of compassion in the world.

When I pick up a daily newspaper I am often confronted by the huge amount of suffering and pain that exists in the world, and it can all seem overwhelming. In recent years I have found it helpful to hold the perspective that there will always be some suffering in the world and no matter how hard I try, I cannot alleviate it all. Does this mean that we should then give up? Not at all – rather, to come into relationship with our own suffering and that of others in a different way.

I am reminded of the ecological saying ‘think globally, act locally’. This means that we try to hold a larger perspective of the world and humanity, while seeing that our small acts of kindness and compassion towards our family, friends, work colleagues and neighbours all have an effect on the world we live in.

“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
Nelson Mandela

5 Healthy Ways to Survive Christmas

Ram Dass the spiritual teacher once said: “If you think you are enlightened, go and spend a week with your family.” This is one of my favourite quotes and seems appropriate at this time of year. As we head into the festive season we may be spending more time with our extended family whether we go to them or they come to us.

Below are 5 Healthy ways to survive the festive season.

  1. As the festive season approaches it is not uncommon to feel more anxious (I know I do) as we try to juggle home and family commitments on top of regular work. It can also be an emotionally challenging time of year, partly due to expectations. I don’t know how many times have I watched the Christmas adverts and felt a bit flat and disappointed, because my Christmas never matches up.  It may be helpful to step back from our experience and remind ourselves that we are always being marketed an idea, a concept of how things should be. The problem with concepts is that however nice they may be they are not reality; they are something we layer over our experience. Perhaps we can drop any unrealistic expectations of what the festive season can deliver and be open to whatever unfolds.
  2. For many, Christmas is a time when they can be reminded of the family members they are no longer in relationship with, whether through estrangement or bereavement, which can be painful.  I have found spending time with people where my grief can be seen and witnessed can make a big difference as we navigate this difficult time.  It is not about trying to ‘make things all right’, more allowing things to just be as they are but from a place of welcoming and acceptance.
  3. Knowing what you need to do to take care of yourself can also be really helpful. Creating time to meditate, doing some yoga (even if it is just half an hour) or taking yourself off for a walk can really help you to come back to yourself and a sense of spaciousness, which in turn will have a positive effect on those around you.
  4. Think about your general temperament. If you are someone who is more introverted, you may find being around lots of people for long periods of time challenging and exhausting. If this is the case, try taking some time for yourself. Maybe go and read a book, take an afternoon nap or just go and sit quietly somewhere? You may then find yourself feeling more refreshed and ready to engage again. If you are more of an extrovert however, then you may enjoy being around lots of people and don’t find it draining but whatever your temperament, finding a healthy balance can make all the difference.
  5. The festive season is a time when we are encouraged to, “…eat, drink and be merry”. You may find yourself consuming many types of food and drink that you don’t normally have outside of the festive season. Again, finding a healthy balance is helpful.  For example, I have a sweet tooth and could easily devour most of the Quality Street tin if left unsupervised, so I aim to eat only a few when they are on offer as I do find if I eat too much rich food, after a while I start to feel sluggish and my digestion is affected. So for me – remembering moderation is the key.

I would like to wish you a relaxing break over the festive season and hope to see you again in the new year.

A Renaissance Man

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