Epiphany in the Park

At about eleven o’clock the other morning, I was coming back through the park from the shops. It was a morning like many we’ve had in London recently – quite cold, about 7C, slightly misty, and although not actually raining, the atmosphere was damp enough to make the metalled path wet.

ParkpathMod

There was no other person in sight. The children’s playground was silent and deserted. There was no wind to move the bare branches of the trees. The only birds I was aware of were a robin singing his poignant little song somewhere in a tree or hedge close by, and one of the park’s resident band of crows stalking imperiously through the damp grass.

I rounded a bend in the path and started to descend the slight hill towards my exit. As I did so I became aware of a figure at the bottom of the hill coming towards me. It was too far away for me to make out, in that misty, overcast light. any detail. But as we drew closer, I saw it was a woman, medium height, short grey hair, maybe in her mid-fifties and wearing a three-quarter length coat. I had never seen her before.

Some people, as you pass them in the street, glance your way and say, “Good morning,” or whatever. Others make it plain, some distance before you actually pass each other, that they want no contact – they look the other way, or make out to be absorbed in thought. But then, occasionally something else takes place.

As this woman and I passed each other, we looked at each other and instantly, from both of us came a completely spontaneous smile. It was not one of those fleeting half-smiles. It was free, open, fully meant and felt. Then we were past each other and gone. I didn’t look back and I’m quite sure she didn’t either  – it hadn’t been that sort of smile. It had had nothing to do with gender; it had been in no way sexual. Yet brief as the exchange had been, it had carried within it something very powerful; some sense of absolute recognition.

Recognition of what, though? I had never seen her before, nor she me. There had clearly been no physical recognition. We were two strangers who had passed one morning in a park – and were gone thereafter from each other’s life. But something of it remained, and remains with me now.

As I continued my walk back home, I cleared everything from my mind in order to try and see that brief exchange for what it had been. And gradually, with a sense of something I can only describe as wonder, it came to me. At that moment of passing, at that moment when our glances met and we smiled, some part of me recognized its own self in her; and in her likewise, that same part of her recognized itself in me. It was not personal; it had nothing to do with male or female; black or white; affluent or destitute; or of any race or nationality. It was that which, like a single river with countless tributaries, flows within every one of us and is common to us all. It is that which, when the temporary trappings of our individual selves are stripped away, is who we really, ultimately are. It is life, unstoppable, eternal. We are life. And we are one.

Some years ago, I wrote a brief meditation on this subject, slightly amended for this post – 

“The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one. We have, for millennia accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the world than the mosquito on the back of the elephant. Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.

Whoever you encounter and wherever, look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.”

 

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So – we’ve remembered

Dateline – 1105, on the morning of 11 November 2018.

So – here in London, England it’s gone eleven, and we’ve ‘Remembered’. Now we’ll go out and sell more guns and bombs to Saudi. And to anyone else who’ll listen.

Remembering is easy. Putting a stop to the carnage is harder. In fact, it’s proved so hard since 1918 that we’ve never actually stopped. We’re still at it. Families are torn apart, men, women and their children maimed and killed. But they’re not British bombs and guns, we say. You see, we stipulate that our bombs and guns are not used in life-threatening scenarios. So imagine – two Saudi air force men are loading a bomber with weapons for a raid on The Yemen. “We haven’t got enough bombs to fill her up, mate, this time,” one says to the other. “What d’you mean?” his colleague replies, “there’s a whole other pile of them over there.” “Ah, no,” says the first, ” we can’t use them. They’re British bombs.”

We justify it because – we say – so many British jobs depend on it. If it were the other way around, would we be happy to see our children’s limbs blown off in the interest of guaranteeing a job to someone in another country? And the other justification – if we don’t do it, someone else will – that’s not even worthy of a school playground.

The way we act on Armistice Day smacks to me of hypocrisy on a grand scale. It is hijacked and so professionally stage-managed by the Establishment that millions are persuaded to go along with its tragic thoughtlessness. I don’t doubt the momentary  sincerity of our leaders as they lay wreaths and pray. I don’t doubt the momentary genuineness of the tears on the faces of the Chelsea Pensioners or on those of the watching public. But I do doubt their real awareness of what they’re doing, and what good, if any, their shows of profundity are worth.

The so-called ‘Great War’ was nothing noble. It was an obscene exercise in prolonged, officially choreographed barbarity. Any doubters should watch Peter Jackson’s recently released film of it – ‘They Shall Not Grow Old.’ The film is put together entirely from original contemporary film footage and the voices of allied combatants. No animal on earth behaves in the way those men – on all sides – were brutalized into doing. Brutalized by so-called ‘leaders’ – politicians and military chiefs who, by rights, should have been convicted of war crimes.

Towards the end of the film  when British soldiers, many of whom were still in their teens, and their German prisoners were socializing together over cups of tea in the British trenches, there are many comments like, “What was the point?” “We just wanted an end to it, no matter who won.” “It should never have happened.”

Men on both sides, had seen their mates blown up or gunned down, the flesh ripped from their faces, their insides spilled out into the never-ending mud. And when the end finally came and the last gun fired, there was no celebration, no whooping for joy; no throwing of helmets into the air. Just a dumbfounded silence in which a shattered and demoralized ragtag army collapsed, exhausted to the ground at its feet.

When they arrived back home – almost a million less of them than went out (not including the million and a half wounded) – they were largely ignored. No-one wanted to hear about the appalling conditions and the gut-churning horrors they’d endured. Thousands of them could find no employment. Having gone through a living hell on behalf of their country, they felt no longer wanted by it.

Is this what we want to ‘remember’ on Armistice Day? Is this why we have military bandsmen in their proud, colourful dress uniforms playing their brightly shone instruments? Why poppies are everywhere? Why politicians, dressed as for an upper-class funeral, lay wreaths at memorials, expressions of profound grief on their faces? And what’s the point if, in the background to that, we’re still selling to other countries, guns, bombs, missiles far more horrific in their destructive power now than those of 100 years ago? What has it all been about – our ‘remembering’? Anything much?

The greatest thing, perhaps the only thing, we can do today to sufficiently honour the memory of those men who fought, on all sides in that conflict, is to strive, every one of us – politician, man/woman in the street, parents – to do everything in our power in our everyday lives to reduce our tendency to personal conflict – conflict with partners, conflict with work colleagues, personal conflict of all sorts. War is but a macrocosm of the strife between individuals. Without the latter, there could be none of the former. And if the monstrosity of wars like that is not enough to make us change our way of living – then perhaps nothing is. And ominously, that’s the way it seems. One hundred years on, on almost every continent, there are wars, riots, terrorist incidents, even the embryonic resurgence of the far right.

Time is running out. If we don’t get serious very soon, on a global scale and address this fault line in our makeup, it will finally run out and our race, like the dinosaurs, will be consigned to history. And by our own hand too.

NOTE: Peter Jackson’s film can be viewed, till Sunday 18 November, on BBC iPlayer, and probably, at varying dates, at cinema’s around the UK. A lot of it is not easy viewing.

 

 

 

 

 

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Making a mess, aren’t we?

We’re making a mess of this, aren’t we? After thousands of years of conflict, we – the human race – are still at it. One nation argues with another, drops bombs on another. (What, in the final analysis, is a ‘nation’ bar a more or less arbitrary line in the sand?). One religion – so-called – fights another, blows up the citizens, the families, the children of another. Not content with attacking our own selves, we’re now allowing our thoughtless toxicity to kill fish, cephalopods, seabirds, molluscs, coral reefs – along with bees, vast areas of rainforest – and on and on it goes. And the number of species of birds and animals now known to have been rendered extinct in the last hundred years by the action of  ‘the human race’ is frightening.

What are we doing? No world leader, no politician anywhere has the plain, unadorned moral courage to stand up above the rest of the mediocre bunch and declare the clearing up of this mess and the forging of a different sort of society a global priority. But that’s the reality that’s one day soon going to hit us if we simply continue to operate in the dilettante, damage-limitation mode that has become par for the course.

In our hubris we proceed as though we own the planet and control Nature. But ‘Nature’ is not a thing apart which we can handle how we like without kickback. We and Nature are one – and the warnings are there now for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Extremes of weather are becoming more and more common across the planet; we are choking the oceans with our plastic detritus; air pollution in major cities threatens the health of our children; the ice at the poles is melting and sea levels fast rising.  People living on islands in the Pacific are already having to retreat from the rising waters. Their societies however, are not important enough in the eyes of the rest of the world for it to do a whole lot about it bar give them the odd reference in a news item. But if and when the eastern seaboard of the US gets inundated, then – well, that will be different.

The stark, nasty reality of such an event could, if we carry on in the same old way, make the inter-nation conflict even worse as we fight each other for the planet’s diminishing resources. In which case we’ll probably go down in the history textbooks of another and more mature universe under the heading of – ‘Failed Species.’

On the other hand if, by that time, we’ve actually shocked ourselves into growing up, we might actually turn our attention to helping and looking after each other instead of fighting each other.

That would be nice.

A Meditation

The problems of our world stem not so much from our failure to act as though we – its peoples – are one, as from our failure to recognize that we – its peoples – are one.

 

We have, for millennia accorded life-or-death importance to superficial differences which are of no more significance in the wider sweep of things than the mosquito on the back of the elephant.

 

 

Thus we resist one of the most profound and uplifting truths of ourselves as human beings.

But our children deserve better. This surely is the end time for all this.

 

 

Look into your brother’s eye, your sister’s eye and see there yourself.

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So there were these crocuses….

One morning last week, I was taking a walk round our little park in order to air my brain – I’d been writing intensely for well over two hours and was feeling a need to reconnect with the real world – when, right by one of the exit gates, I came upon a pair of newly-opened purple and white crocuses. (‘Croci’, if you prefer). They were typically beautiful, standing there, looking around in the low sunshine. But what struck me particularly about these two was that their neighbours in this small patch of ground weren’t spring daffodils ‘fluttering and dancing in the breeze’ or little snowdrops, shyly hanging their heads – no, their neighbours were a crumpled up sheet of plastic, a cereal bar wrapper, a plastic screw top, torn paper and various other bits of detritus, the like of which we human beings commonly throw away for someone else to clean up.

It wasn’t bothering the two crocuses. The surrounding garbage had no effect on their beauty, their radiance, their personal pride – what self-belief! And I supposed – being the incurable anthropomorphiser that I am – that their attitude to the ne’er-do-wells and general low-lifes all around them was that – well, that’s life. We all have to get on and live together. And that, they seemed to be doing very successfully. I wished them well and went back to my writing.

Surprising what you can learn from crocuses. (’Croci’ if you prefer).


 

 

 

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OK – so there is no point. Now what?

 I never managed to figure out what organized religion was actually about. It wasn’t for want of trying. I wanted to know. From almost as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a deep sense of there being something which was – how can I say? – beyond all this. And in order to explore this feeling, religion seemed the obvious thing to turn to. But the sight of men – usually men, though thankfully not so much now – dressed in gowns and odd head-pieces, addressing, in a purpose-built venue, a gathering of people, many of whom had dressed for the occasion, in incantatory tones and talking of a divine being separate from them, who had created the universe didn’t penetrate beyond my inner ear. Nor, as I grew a little older, could I align the words and deeds of their own prophet with what went on in those places. He had always seemed to me to be a true man of the people – and a maverick. He didn’t just quietly and politely tell the moneylenders they really ought not to be doing what they did – he marched in and overturned their tables! He consorted with the poor, the dispossessed and the disabled. That seemed a far cry from my experience of church with all its polite formality.

 In my pre-teens, although I was shepherded at irregular but relatively frequent intervals to churches and chapels by my mother and step-father, I came away empty handed; in what I saw and heard, I found nothing of that mystery that I sensed within my own self. They sent me to Sunday School when I was about ten. I found it stultifying. I stuck the first session out to the end, but absconded a quarter of the way through the second and went off to the park – never to return. I felt horribly guilty. Whenever I saw the man who ran the Sunday School go past our house on his bike, I hid.

 One day when I was about twelve, I was wandering along by the river which flowed through the centre of the small town in which we lived. I had just finished Saturday school (Yep – school on Saturday morning then!) and was waiting for my mother to finish work at the small baker’s shop she managed. Her working week too ended at Saturday lunchtime. We would meet, then cycle home together. I remember stopping on the river bank, looking at the river flowing gently past, when a thought – or rather a ‘feeling’ – came to me, seemingly out of nowhere. I quite suddenly found myself thinking that when I was dead, it wouldn’t worry me if they – whoever ‘they’ were – threw me in the river – because I was not my body.

I thought no more about that at the time. I carried on with my walk, met my mother when the time came, and we cycled home. It was only years later, when I mentioned the incident to a friend at work, that I realized, seeing the puzzlement on his face, it had been a pretty strange thought to have had, especially for someone not yet into their teens. My friend’s reaction set me thinking seriously about it for the first time. If I were not my body, then who was this ‘I’? It seemed a fairly crucial matter – for what is this thing walking about the world, bearing a name given to it by its parents yet not knowing who or what it is? There was something faintly ludicrous – even self-deprecating – about it. But if I were to try and find out, I had no reason to suppose the churches or chapels were going to help me. They did not talk the language of that sense I had within me of there existing somewhere a profound mystery in which we all shared, and for which I could not then, and cannot even now, find the words. If I were going to do this, it seemed I’d have to do it for myself.

 One day, in a charity shop, I picked up a book called, ‘In Days of Great Peace’, about one rather extraordinary man’s lifelong search for the very thing I myself seemed to be seeking. In the Foreword to that, the writer spoke about ‘consciousness’ – or ‘awareness’ if you like – that thing by virtue of which we all communicate with and comprehend the world we see ‘out there’. Mainstream Western science, he said, had never taken it very seriously. ** But it is, nevertheless, an absolutely integral part of ourselves and of that physical world ‘out there’. And just a little thought indeed makes that clear – because without consciousness, without our awareness – our ability to see, hear, taste, feel and smell there would be no world ‘out there’ at all. And if there were, we’d have not the slightest means of knowing anything about it. This includes our own individual selves as well – for they are known to us only through that same consciousness. All of which indicated to me that as far as it’s possible to tell, there is nothing at all that is outside consciousness; in other words, the phenomenal world is a function of consciousness.

This sent a tremor through me. Because if that were the case, the mystery was not going to be revealed in a church, chapel or book. It was somewhere within me; within you; within all of us who have at our disposal – to coin an odd phrase – this thing called ‘consciousness’.

 I’ve quoted the following a couple of times before in my blog and I make no excuses for doing so again – the words of a wonderful man I met in northern India. He lived as a hermit in a cave on the slopes of the hills just outside Rishikesh where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas. When asked if he thought Westerners should search around in their own countries for spiritual guides rather than flock to India as they did, he replied, “Why? Why would you look for that which you are holding in your hand?” In other words, if you’re serious in your search for whatever you conceive the mystery of this life to be – you need to look, not anywhere on the outside, but somewhere within your own self. That brought to my mind the extraordinary words of one of the world’s most revered Eastern mystics, Ramana Maharshi – “You are already That which you seek.” And then this from the Bible – “I am that I am.”

 I have never been conscious, never been aware of a being called God; I know of nobody who has, although a great many have been conscious of the idea, the concept of God. I have however been conscious of, and am constantly conscious of, a mystery which is beyond all this. A mystery for which I can find no words, but which I see revealed all around me. I see it in the skies, the clouds, the sunsets, the squirrels and birds in the park under my window, in the cries of the children playing there; I see it in small things – a leaf on an autumn tree, the sun through a raindrop. I see it in the faces – happy and sad – of other people, in their smiles and their tears; I feel it in music, in poetry, in all my children, in the laughter of my woman. And that, to me, reflects the heart of the mystery – silent, unknowable, unquantifiable, indescribable – yet utterly real and thus indestructible. You can call it what you like – the name is immaterial. But whatever name you give it, it’s common to us all and we are all common to it. Call it God, call it That, call it Spirit, call it Us.

Maybe even call it ‘I’.

** I’ve read recently that ‘consciousness’ is more and more being thought of as something modern science must now take seriously and investigate in an effort to understand. What occurs to me about that is that if the investigation is to be conducted using the conventional scientific method, it could be rather like using the beam of the torch to find the torch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is there a point to all this? (4)

 “Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend. Dust unto Dust and under Dust to lie, sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer – and sans End!”

Is there a point to all this? – probably not. Not in any conventional sense. Not in the sense that there will ever come a time in your life when you can sit back with a smile on your face, a gin and tonic in your hand, and say to yourself, “That’s it. I’ve done it! That’s what I came here for.” Then spend the remainder of your days in a warm fuzz of achievement, and die happy with that same smile on your face, surrounded by the proud looks of admiring loved ones gathered around to see you off. That aint gonna happen.

In the first place, whatever you ‘achieved’ – a great commercial enterprise you built up over the years, a stunning piece of architecture that brought you world-wide acclaim – it will, in the fullness of time, disintegrate, fall apart and be forgotten. Indeed, it will have been falling apart from the moment of its completion. If you’re lucky, it may get a mention in the art history books. The prized certificate, awarded to you and signed in person by the local Mayor, for the biggest marrow at the village fete – that too, in its frame on the sitting room wall, will fade and become illegible with age. Even so, it might outlive you, because you too will fall apart and exit the stage. You’ll be remembered – in a fading-away sort of way – for a generation or two. Beyond that you’ll be little more than an entry in a census form. And even that census form – but there’s no need to go on. Buildings, mountains, civilizations, even the planets and the stars and everything else we can possibly know or conceive of, including our own individual selves, are all in the process of disintegration and becoming dust.

Which, on the face of it, is all pretty depressing. But true, nevertheless – for this is our world.  So where is the point?

Well – maybe the first thing to do is stop looking. For a point, that is. Because you’re almost certainly wasting your time. Perhaps even wasting your life. As a child you never looked for a point. Why would you? And many of our happiest times were in our childhoods. It’s only later, when the ‘world’ gets to us – education (so-called), work, etc. – that we start needing ‘points’ and reasons. If you’re seriously religious in a conventional sense, then I suppose you believe the point of your life to be service to God. If so, then hopefully you’re at peace with that belief. But if, like so many people, you don’t understand who or what ‘God’ is or was, that’s not going to do it for you. And you’re left flailing around, confused and maybe even a little despairing.

Sit in a quiet corner and go over the occasions in your life so far that have moved you – not just made you ‘happy’ – but moved you and maybe brought the tears to your eyes. Like Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; like the look in a loved one’s eyes when they look into yours and tell you they love you; like wondering at and sensing in your heart the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the vast, impersonal beauty of the Sahara Desert; like hearing the very first cry of your new-born child; like looking from your window and wondering at the ever-changing colours of a sunset; like peering into the heavens on a cloudless night and seeing in the darkness above you those countless billions of twinkling points of light and feeling all around you the something that is beyond the little You but of which, nevertheless, you are part.

Not one of those things has a point. But they stay with you; they touch your soul. They stir in you and release from within you something which is timeless and nameless. They open you out to the miracle of what Is. And that will not fade, nor will it fall apart. So instead of looking for a ‘point’ that doesn’t exist in a future that will never arrive, perhaps we should be still, here and now – be still, and just ‘be’. Use our minds and think only when something needs thinking about. Then leave thinking to one side and just ‘be’. Like we once were, as children. ‘Unless ye become as little children’, a man once said. Misunderstood, as he so often has been down the centuries, he got it right.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is there a point to all this? (3)

To recap two of my earlier posts on the same subject – do you wonder what this is all about – this life? That’s of course, if it’s about anything at all. All the rushing here, rushing there, have I done this, that, everything I have to do? Will I catch the train, the bus, the plane? Where’s my ticket?? Have the kids got everything for school? Come on! We’re going to be late – and no, we can’t afford that – the mortgage is due this week, and the gas bill, and my dentist’s, and it’s nearly Christmas and I still haven’t got a present for – oh, God – what is the point?

We go about life like everything we do has to have a point, some more or less desirable end result – even life itself needs to have a point. As a result, our minds are so much of the time set on the future. ‘My goal is…’, ‘What I want to achieve is…’, ‘My dream is to become….’ And once I’ve arrived at that magic point then, so the assumption goes, I will be happy and fulfilled. Then what?

I’ve never climbed a mountain – at least, not a physical, geographical one –  but isn’t it a bit like that? Once at the summit, what then? Clearly, an enormous, exhilarating sense of achievement; a while spent in wonder at the view from the top of the world; taking photographs; then the turn around and the long trek back down. You wouldn’t want to sit on the summit for ever. The mountain has now to be consigned to that thing called memory. And memory is notoriously unreliable. With time, it fades into the mist; bits of it simply disappear; its chronology becomes doubtful, often impossible to disentangle with any certainty.

What doesn’t seem to fade however is the joy you had – however difficult, challenging, painful it may all have been – in getting there. That seems, in some indefinable way, to be still with you; to have contributed something permanent to some inner part of you.

Look back – what were the happiest times of your life? Or really I suppose I should say the most joyful times of your life – for ‘joy’ is a lot more than just ‘happy’. Some special time in your childhood? Something which moved you profoundly – like the birth of a child perhaps. Like watching the pulling down of the Berlin wall and seeing those people with tears in their eyes reunited with family members from whom they’d been separated for years.

Things  like that bring joy. But what was the point in any of them? Watch a beautiful sunset – listen to a piece of music that moves you to tears. Where is the point, the end result? To paraphrase the inimitable Alan Watts, you don’t go to a concert, a gig, in order to wait to hear the final chord; you don’t stand there, in awe of the beauty of that sunset in order to see the sun disappear over the horizon; you don’t join in a dance in order to arrive at a certain point on the dance floor. You do those things in order simply to do them and to be part of them. And when they’re over, they’re over. The thing, the act, the event was sufficient unto itself – and to you as the partaker in it. There was no ‘point’ in any of them.

Neither the ‘future’ nor the past are real; they are ideas, thoughts. The past is memory; the future a mental concept. When the ‘past’ was actually here, it was the present; when the ‘future’ gets here, it too will be the present. Our one and only reality, the only part of our lives over which we have any genuine control, is here now – the present. As the American journalist, satirist, H.L Mencken said, maybe a touch – but only a touch – tongue in cheek, “We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.” Everything, without exception, happens only in the present moment.

Given that, it seems only natural that even if you’re never going to find a ‘point’ to life, the only place it makes any sense to look for a clue as to what it might ultimately be about is in the present moment.

The following, on this subject, is from my book of meditations –

If this present moment be out of true  –  then rest assured, leave it unattended to and the one which follows will also be out of true. Then the next and the next and so on in an ever-steepening curve until you stand at great distance from the wisdom of your own heart. Continue even then as you are – and the resulting distress to your Self will, in the short or long term, resolve itself into disturbance of the mind or illness of the body.

Within each moment is how to live it. Look well and without fear, then do as you find there. It requires eternal watchfulness regarding Now. But Now is all we have and all we know.

 

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