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

A Thousand Fibres Connect Us

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)

Try To Be A Little Kinder

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.’”
Aldous Huxley