There is something I must dwell on
because I know more than I know and must learn it from myself.

— Marilynne Robinson

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The last time I saw Richard

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe”.

The haunting opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song, “The last time I saw Richard” from her 1971 LP ‘Blue’.  Anyone familiar with this album will know it contains doses of both confessional longing and romantic disillusionment. I once heard it described as, “…beautiful pain.”

When I was in my twenties, a friend of mine used to like to tease me because I was a hopeless romantic and they joked that one day I too would meet a similar fate to the character in the song. In more recent years I have begun to wonder if maybe they were right?  I may have avoided becoming a drunk but I have noticed developing in myself a deeper sense of disillusionment and at times, cynicism towards life.

In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell said of ‘Blue’:

“There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”

The emotional rawness on ‘Blue’ is something I can relate to. After the death of my girlfriend Elaine, I found it was an album that I played continuously. It was as if the songs on ‘Blue’ mirrored my own desolate inner landscape of feeling broken hearted and disillusioned by life.

As we engage with our lives we will all undergo a journey from naive innocence to mature experience and this seems part of a natural process of becoming an adult in the world.  As I look at my own life, I often ask myself the question: Can I stay open hearted in relationship to the world, or is living with a certain level of disillusionment and cynicism just a part of getting older?

The answer is, I like to believe it is possible to carry the wounds that come from being in the world, but that we can also simultaneously step into life feeling connected to others.  Allowing ourselves to be seen, to love and be loved, to be vulnerable, strong and to get things right and make mistakes.  Embracing our lives more fully, building a deeper relationship with what it is to be fully human and alive.

Tara & the Lake of Tears

There is a moving story in the Buddhist tradition about the birth of the goddess Tara. It is said that Avalokiteshvara the bodhisattva of compassion looked upon all the suffering in the world and as he did tears fell from his eyes.  The tears then began to form a lake in which a lotus developed. As the lotus opened, a beautiful woman appeared, the goddess Tara.

Tara is a manifestation of compassion and gentle kindness. Her name can mean ‘star’ but it is usually understood to mean ‘saviouress’. Tara is one of the most popular figures found within the Buddhist tradition.

Reflecting on this story I was reminded how often I am confronted by the huge amount of suffering and pain that exists in the world and it can all seem so 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, but instead come into relationship with our own suffering and that of others in a different way. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Think globally, act locally’. This means that we try to hold a larger perspective of the world and humanity whilst seeing that our small acts of kindness and compassion towards our family, friends and community all have an effect on the world we live in. We can have trust and confidence that, like a small stone dropped into a pond, our acts of kindness and love can ripple out touching the lives of many people and creating a kinder, more loving world in which to live.

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you”.

L.R.Knost

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’

its-a-wonderful-life-3

 

Love Forever Changes

On a Saturday in December 1967, a young man went down to his local record shop in London called ‘One Stop Records’. On this Saturday in question the young man had gone to buy Donovan’s new album ‘A Gift From a Flower to a Garden’. As he queued to pay, he glanced around at the people behind him and saw Michael Caine patiently waiting his turn, holding the album ‘Forever Changes’ by Love.

This album was released by Elektra Records on 1st November 1967 and this month will be its 50th anniversary. ‘Forever Changes’ failed to achieve commercial success when it was first released, but has gone on to be recognized as one of the greatest albums ever made.

Upon its release the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The album can survive endless listening with no diminishing either of power or of freshness”, while noting “…parts of the album are beautiful; others are disturbingly ugly, reflections of the pop movement towards realism”.

‘Forever Changes’ has a musical background of lush orchestral string arrangements and mariachi style brass accompaniment. It manages to effortlessly move between haunting beauty one moment and eerie darkness the next, combined with Arthur Lee’s surreal, unsettling lyrics such as “Sitting on a hillside watching all the people die / I’ll feel much better on the other side” you have unique album like no other.

I first discovered the album whilst studying at art college and soon fell under its intoxicating spell. I have discovered it’s an album that once you fall in love with, the love lasts a lifetime. One of the enduring themes within the album is its exploration of the human condition. It touches on themes of life, death, beauty and time.

One of the central Buddhist teachings is 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.

Discovering these Buddhist teachings on impermanence and this vision of life as flowing change and process, rather than something solid and permanent was for me, exciting and profound it was as if Buddhism was articulating something I intuitively sensed in the world, but was not able to articulate.  What I love about ‘Forever Changes’ is that within the medium of a rock album, we encounter similar profound insights on life that can be found in the teachings of Buddhism.

Sometimes within popular culture we can find genuine works of art that have the ability to change our lives for the better. ‘Forever Changes’ is I feel, one such work of art and it is just as relevant today as it was in 1967.

 

Broken Places & Golden Repairs

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” 

So wrote Ernest Hemingway in his novel  A Farewell to Arms.

I was reminded of these words recently as October marks the second anniversary of the death of my beloved girlfriend Elaine. Since her death, I have been living with the subsequent grief that comes from loosing a partner you loved and planned to spend the rest of your life with. I feel my heart broke the day Elaine died and something in me died with her.  I have lived these last few years with a sense of feeling broken. At the same time my life has continued to unfold and I try to engage with it. I go to work, do the weekly food shop, pay the bills, spend time with friends and family. Yet beneath all this, a sense of being broken continues. When we have something broken in our lives, we generally try and mend it or fix it.

In Japan there is a word Kintsukuroi or 金繕い which means “Golden Repair”

Kintsukuroi or kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer and silver or gold.

The flaws of the broken pottery are highlighted by this process. There is an understanding that the new piece is more beautiful for having been broken. The flaw in the pottery is seen.

as part of the history of the object, creating its own unique beauty, rather than something to disguise or be hidden. It is in fact more beautiful for having been broken.

If we take the image of the broken piece of pottery and it’s golden repair, we may reflect on our own lives and the places that may feel broken within us. Maybe rather than feeling a need to hide those aspects of ourselves, we could allow them to be visible to the world, learning to carry them with us. The broken flaw is now a part of us, it never leaves us, but it also doesn’t define us as we begin to look towards the future and the life we can imagine for ourselves.

 

There is a brokenness

out of which comes the unbroken,

a shatteredness

out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow

beyond all grief which leads to joy

and a fragility

out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space

too vast for words

through which we pass with each loss,

out of whose darkness

we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound

whose serrated edges cut the heart

as we break open to the place inside

which is unbreakable and whole,

while learning to sing.

Rashani  Rea

Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen

My grandmother had a love of the silver screen and as a small boy I would happily spend afternoons with her watching iconic films such as, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lady Vanishes’ which starred the great British actress Margaret Lockwood. Who during the war years was Britain’s number one box office star, starring in films such as ‘The Man in Grey’ and ‘The Wicked Lady’. One day, I was shown a fascinating photo of her which was signed to my Great Grandfather Adam Moffat. The faded inscription read “To Adam, best wishes from Margaret Lockwood & Toots.’

Upon further investigation I discovered my Great Grandfather had been given the photo after she had visited the clothing factory where he worked as a foreman in 1948. Accompanying the photo was a letter thanking him for a kilt he made for her daughter Toots:

Dear Mr. Moffat, Just a note from myself and Toots to thank you personally for the very useful and charming kilt which you made for her. It was a most pleasant surprise and added a great deal to my enjoyment of a most interesting visit to your factory. Thank You again Yours Sincerely Margaret Lockwood”

I share this story with you because this experience gave me a sense that the world was suddenly bigger than the one I previously known. I began to discover a love of the cinema, the theatre and art which developed a sense of meaning and creativity I had not previously been exposed to. For me, the arts provided a vital gateway into life. They helped me make sense of what it was to be alive and in the world, with all its complexity.

Many years later I inherited that photo of Margaret Lockwood and it know sits framed in my flat. When I look at it, I feel a thread of connection not only to my family, but also to my early love of the arts in all forms and how much they have enriched my life for the better.      

“The arts, quite simply, nourish the soul. They sustain, comfort, inspire. There is nothing like that exquisite moment when you first discover the beauty of connecting with others in celebration of larger ideals and shared wisdom”.

Gordon Gee

Hokusai Says: Live with the World Inside You

There is a fascinating story about a Japanese artist called Hokusai who was a painter and printmaker during Japan’s Edo period. In 1810 at the age of 50, Hokusai went to the Buddhist temple Myōken Hall in Yanagishima to make offerings and prayers to the Bodhisattva Myōken. He prayed to Myōken to make him a great artist and then apparently on his way home from the temple he was struck by lightning! He survived this and did indeed go on to become one of Japan’s great artists. He is most renowned for his famous woodblock print series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, which includes the iconic print most people are familiar with, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’.

When looking at Hokusai’s paintings and drawings I am really moved by his relationship to the natural world around him. It seems as if Hokusai spent his whole lifetime in a sense of wonder and curiosity. Like all great artists, he communicated his vision and knowledge through his paintings. He seemed to have the ability to look so clearly at the subject of his painting become one with the wave or the fish or the mountain, allowing the world to live inside him and through him.

While working on another famous series called “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji” he wrote:

“From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own”

One of my favourite poems is called ‘Hokusai Says’ by Roger Keyes. When I first heard the poem on a meditation retreat I was moved to tears.  The poem really captures the poetic and soulful relationship we can develop towards ourselves and the world we live in. The poem offers an invitation to glimpse the world through Hokusai’s eyes and live with the world inside you.

Hokusai Says – Roger Keyes

Hokusai says Look carefully.

He says pay attention, notice.

He says keep looking, stay curious.

He says there is no end to seeing.

He says Look Forward to getting old.

He says keep changing, you just get more who you really are.

He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself as long as it’s interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.

He says keep praying.

He says every one of us is a child, every one of us is ancient, every one of us has a body.

He says every one of us is frightened.

He says every one of us has to find a way to live with fear.

He says everything is alive –shells, buildings, people, fish, mountains, trees.

Wood is alive.

Water is alive.

Everything has its own life.

Everything lives inside us.

He says live with the world inside you.

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.

It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.

It doesn’t matter if you sit at home and stare at the ants on your veranda

or the shadows of the trees and grasses in your garden.

It matters that you care.

It matters that you feel.

It matters that you notice.

It matters that life lives through you.

Contentment is life living through you.

Joy is life living through you.

Satisfaction and strength is life living through you.

Peace is life living through you.

He says don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid.

Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.

Let life live through you.

Believe to be Beautiful

I have a particular vivid memory of my first visit to Florence’s main cathedral “Santa Maria del Fioreor” or the Duomo as it is most often referred to. The cathedral stands proudly over the city with its magnificent Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. On the day of my visit to the cathedral, I entered the huge bronze main door, which is adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna and it’s scale and grandeur feels like you have just stepped onto the set of the Lord of the Rings. As I walked into the main cathedral entrance of the building, to my surprise the organist started to play and I found myself surrounded by heavenly choral music as I gazed at the awe inspiring mosaic pavements, architecture and fresco paintings. In that moment, the beauty of what I was experiencing felt almost overwhelming. I felt like I wanted to drop to my knees and prostrate on the floor, in response to it.

I share this episode with you as I have been reflecting recently on the theme of beauty.

According to the Oxford dictionary, beauty is  “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight ”  We may say things such as ‘I was struck by her beauty’ or we visited ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty’

I have always loved the quote by the English textile designer, William Morris who said. “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

Inspired by the words of William Morris I have in the last few years tried to make an effort to bring more beauty into my daily life. One of my weekly rituals is to buy fresh flowers for my flat I live in and also keep my bird feeders topped up with seeds, which means that I will get some regular visitors to my window. Maybe some colourful goldfinches or a little robin. For me I find that cultivating a deeper relationship to beauty, helps draw me into life more fully. We unfortunately cannot spend our lives wandering the streets of Florence, but we can I believe take time to be open to moments of beauty in our ordinary daily lives. It may be enjoying the spring blossom on a tree on our way to work, noticing the bees on the flowers or an evening sunset. These ordinary moments of allowing the beauty of the world to touch us, may help us feel a more living, vibrant connection to being alive and connected to ourselves and the world we inhabit more deeply.   

Beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm. Philosophies fall away like sand, creeds follow one another, but what is beautiful is a joy for all seasons, a possession for all eternity.

Oscar Wilde

The Beatles: Sgt Pepper at 50

On Thursday 1st June 1967 the Beatles released their album ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and this year sees its 50th anniversary being celebrated. The album had a huge impact around the world and became the soundtrack to what was soon to be termed, “The Summer of Love”. With its iconic album cover designed by the pop artists Peter Blake and Jan Howarth it spent 27 weeks at the top of the album charts in the U.K and 15 weeks at number one in the U.S. Time magazine called it, “A historic departure in the progress of music – any music”.  Today, it is still seen by many as one of the greatest pop album’s ever made. With songs such as ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, and the extraordinary, ‘A Day in the Life’. The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s created what would become a new standard within which pop music could be judged.

On the album there is a song by George Harrison called ‘Within You, Without You’. What makes the song unique is that it was one of the few Beatles songs not to include the other Beatles. Harrison recorded it with members of London’s Asian Music Circle in EMI Studio 2 at Abbey Road. They tried to create an appropriate mood by inviting the musicians to play sitting on woven carpets, with incense burning and the lights dimmed low.  In the song, Harrison attempted to explore his new found love of Hindustani music. The song was partially inspired by a lengthy suite written by the Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. Harrison had recently begun a friendship with Ravi Shankar and had spent the previous year in India trying to learn the sitar. “I had George practice all the correct positions of sitting and some of the basic exercises.” Shankar wrote in his autobiography, ‘My Music, My Life’. Apparently, Harrison found the new sitting postures required to learn the sitar challenging on his hips, so Shankar suggested he take up yoga.

As I began my own personal exploration of Buddhist meditation practices and yoga I was reminded of the song. Through the song Harrison explored a view of Indian philosophy and religious tradition. He also offered a critique on materialism, “the people who gain the world and lose their soul” suggesting deeper meaning and salvation could be found through an inner spiritual transcendence.  I was particularly struck by the words, “When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there, and the time will come when you see we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you”

Harrison’s song can point to an experience of our sense of self as not fixed, but rather as something open, fluid and constantly changing. The Buddha taught that all conditioned things are devoid of a permanent, unchanging self. This is not a strange form of nihilism and it is not that we do not exist rather, that when we look at our direct experience all we observe are thoughts, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and acts of consciousness. Nothing can be said to be solid and permanent. There is no fixed, unchanging self at the centre of our experience. Everything that arises in our life is dependent on many complex conditions. Unfortunately, we sometimes suffer because we can believe the opposite to be true and spend our days trying to defend or assert a belief in a fixed identity and self.

Such teachings can seem bewildering. I have found it helpful to reflect on the basic view that you people are not fixed and that it is possible to change. People may have limiting views but are not defined by them. Maybe, as we live our lives we too can glimpse a sense of this, experiencing the fluid nature of ourselves and trust that we have the potential to be always so much more than we think we are.

Now, 50 years later, it is still possible to marvel at the brilliance of the crafted pop songs that make up ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and how the biggest pop band in the world at the time were not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of what pop music could be. The Beatles introduced musical ideas from the avant-garde and profound concepts from Indian philosophy; transforming pop music once viewed as a disposable light weight commodity to a thing of beauty, depth and art.

 

Life is not Fair, Is it?

The late comedian and writer, Victoria Wood was reportedly to have told one last joke before she died, “Life is not fair, is it? Some of us drink champagne in the fast lane, and some of us eat our sandwiches by the loose chippings on the A597”.  In these wonderful few lines she managed, through her humour to capture the bitter- sweet nature of life and illustrate a very hard truth to swallow, which is that life is not always fair.  We are each born into our own individual set of circumstances which to certain degrees will have an impact on our experience of the world.  In my own life, as I have got older, I have tried to allow myself to accept that the life I have experienced so far has been bitter-sweet containing many wonderful moments of love, delight and laughter but also pain, loss and unhappiness.

I remember when my partner Elaine was dying, I would anxiously spend my time trying to control the situation, with a faint hope that I could control reality if I just tried hard enough. I remember breaking down and crying one day when I really understood that I couldn’t stop her from dying. In that moment, I felt a surrendering to the situation of our life together and a letting go of what I felt our life should be.  We can take initiative with our life and the events we encounter, but life is far too big and complex for it to be controlled. So what can we do in the face of difficulties when they arise?

I believe that by learning to relax into our bodies and being with our vulnerability in the world we find a creative response. This may seem counter-intuitive because when we experience difficulties, often the last thing we feel like doing is allowing ourselves to be more vulnerable. But, there is a strength that comes from abiding in the heart and in our vulnerability. It connects us more deeply to ourselves and others and brings us into a deeper relationship to the world and soul.

What to Remember When Waking

by David Whyte

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?