The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: Infinite. WILLIAM BLAKE

Wanderer, there is no way; the way is made by walking. ANTONIO MACHADO

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Breath Of The Greater Life

Just as a white summer cloud in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere — in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that . . .  leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.

LAMA GOVINDA The Way of the White Clouds (Quoted in Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard)

I've just noticed that I'll soon be writing my 1500th post — probably sometime in February. As usual with me, this observation gives rise to all sorts of questions. Is this an achievement or not? If so, what kind of an achievement is it? What is an achievement, anyhow? Actually, come to think of it, I don't much like the word 'achievement'. I don't think I've ever written that word on this blog before. And why I am writing it now is anyone's guess. Because I don't particularly warm to those who write glowingly about what they've 'achieved' — even if it's de rigueur to do this these days. (Facebook, God help us.) I prefer a more modest, subtle approach. Oh, so English.

Am I writing for myself or for an empathic readership? (Both, I think. I write to get my own thoughts in order, to give some sense and structure to my life, to share this at-times lonely process with others and to hope for some common ground.)

It has been a blessing to give and receive, to share with a nucleus of others (you know who you are) the joys and travails of an individual yet common path. Thank you for everything.

And it's not even the 1500th yet! (Good God, I hope sentimentality isn't going to strike me now I'm 60.)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Be True To The Law Of Your Being

TAO's presence in this world / Is like valley streams / Flowing into rivers and seas. Tao Te Ching 

I'm reading Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard at last and much enjoying it. When Matthiessen first came across the following passage from Jung it was a joyful and significant moment for him. I also found it wildly exciting while reading it yesterday:

The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing . . . He must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths . . . There are not a few who are called awake by the summons of the voice, whereupon they are at once set apart from the others, feeling themselves confronted with a problem about which the others know nothing. In most cases it is impossible to explain to the others what has happened, for any understanding is walled off by impenetrable prejudices. 'You are no different from anybody else,' they will chorus, or, 'there's no such thing', and even if there is such a thing, it is immediately branded as 'morbid' . . . He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. 'His own law!' everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is the law . . . The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realisation — absolute and unconditional — of its own particular law . . . To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being . . . he has failed to realise his life's meaning.

The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way 'Tao', and likens it to a flow of water that moves irresistibly towards its goal. To rest in Tao means fulfilment, wholeness, one's destination reached, one's mission done, the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence in all things.

Today's mantra: Resist not Tao, follow not the crowd but your own inner voice, be true to the law of your own being.

Friday, 23 January 2015

That Rare And Precious Substance, Hope

I have just read an extraordinary book, a visionary book: George Monbiot's Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. For a start it is beautifully written — full of hard facts yet also lyrical (but never sentimental):

We stopped above a waterfall whose cool breath I could feel while standing on the rocks over the gorge, and whose spray I could taste on the air: mossy, halogenic. The peaty brown water stretched dark olive over the sill before plunging and pluming down the long series of rapids. The gorge was a Japanese painting, knotty pines bristling on crooked rocks above the water . . .

It is easy to despair about the ecological state of the world, about the catastrophic disruption mankind has wrought on the rhythms of nature: the land depleted by hunting, deforestation, monoculture and agri-business; the seas savaged by trawling and overfishing. Like many of us, Monbiot was very depressed about this, until hope emerged through a vision — part idealistic, part realistic — of rewilding the planet. I am seduced, staggered, empowered by this idea. Indeed, it is already being realised in some parts of the world: across vast areas of Eastern Europe, for instance, nature has been allowed simply to take its course; trees have multiplied, and flora and fauna have increased exponentially. 

Monbiot's argument is that human beings interfere and try to control too much — not least the conservationists, whose schemes can inhibit biodiversity rather than promote it. The key to abundance and diversity, he argues, are the keystone species, the larger animals at the top of the food chain, or 'trophic cascade' as Monbiot terms it ('cascade' because the bigger mammals are essential cornerstones of the food web: without them, animals and plants below in the hierarchy either die out or become too numerous; it is a natural system which works 'top down'). Monbiot's vision is of a Europe repopulated with lynx, elephant, bear, buffalo, wild boar, wolf, beaver and elk — with sturgeon patrolling the rivers and whales crowding the seas as they did hundreds of years ago. This rewilding means leaving tracts of land to their own natural devices (plus some careful reintroductions of once-native species) and creating marine nature reserves (the ones that already exist have been astonishingly successful at reestablishing healthy and diverse ecosystems in a very short period of time).

The book is packed with some incredible facts and statistics. For example, did you know that the more whales there are, the more fish there are? (Japanese whalers please take note.) You might think that fish stocks would increase without these hungry predators around. Wrong! The reverse is true. Whales and other large sea creatures agitate the water of our oceans to such an extent that plankton — the staple diet of fish — is kept moving and available rather than sinking to the bottom of the sea bed. So the whales are happy and the fish are happy (so to speak). This is a perfect example, out of the many examples Monbiot gives, of how the larger predators are so essential to the food chain — and the reasons are not always obvious. The removal of megafauna can have subtle, unpredictable and often disastrous consequences all through the biosystem.

Feral is also a very personal book, full of Monbiot's own experiences and encounters with the natural world. In the first chapter, Raucous Summer, he urges us to wake up, to rediscover the wildness in nature and in ourselves, to become more passionate. He quotes JG Ballard:

The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them up into a more passionate world.

He understands how we humans tend to desire security and predictability rather than raw experience and spontaneity, and this is to our impoverishment: 

To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. We have privileged safety over experience; gained much in doing so, and lost much.

At the close of the book, when Monbiot leaves his coastal home in Wales for the last time, he writes this, exquisitely:

I thought of the places I would be leaving, of what they were and what they could become. I pictured trees returning to the bare slopes, fish and whales returning to the bay. I thought of what my children and grandchildren might find here, and of how those who worked the land and sea might prosper if this wild vision were to be realised. I thought of how, across these five years, my exploration of nature's capacity to regenerate itself, of the potential for wildlife to return to the places from which it had been purged, had enriched my own life. Wherever I went, I would take the wild life with me. I would devote much of my life to seeking out or helping to create places where I could hear again that high exhilarating note to which I had for so long been deaf, where I could find that rare and precious substance, hope. The black silhouettes of redshank and oystercatchers piped home along the shore. To the south, moonlight glittered on the water, now grooved like a linocut.

From behind me came a noise like a boot being pulled out of the mud. I turned, but all I saw was a large round ripple, as if a monstrous trout had sucked down a fly. Then a fin rose from the lavender sea, five or ten yards away. It sank again then rose beside me. It was a baby: one of last year's dolphin calves. It circled the boat, so close that it almost nudged my paddle, then disappeared into the darkness.

Feral was an important and inspiring read for me, and I hope others will be encouraged to read this timely and visionary book. 

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Psychogeography

The Situationist International (SI) was an international organization of social revolutionaries, the exclusive membership of which was made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists, active from its formation in 1957 to its dissolution in 1972 . . .

The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived primarily from anti-authoritarian Marxism and the avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century, particularly Dada and Surrealism  . . .

The situationists asserted that the misery of social alienation and commodity fetishism were no longer limited to the fundamental components of capitalist society, but had now in advanced capitalism spread themselves to every aspect of life and culture. They resolutely rejected the idea that advanced capitalism's apparent successes — such as technological advancement, increased income and increased leisure — could ever outweigh the social dysfunction and degradation of everyday life that it simultaneously inflicted . . .

The situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, to individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society. Another important concept of situationist theory was the primary means of counteracting the spectacle [the mass media]: the construction of situations, moments of life deliberately constructed for the purpose of reawakening and pursuing authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life and adventure, and the liberation of everyday life . . .

Wikipedia

The notion of psychogeography was first developed by these situationists. Psychogeography was defined by situationist theorist Guy Debord as the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.

It has also been described as a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities . . . just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.  

Wikipedia also states that in psychogeography, a dérive (French: 'drift') is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience. Debord defines the dérive as a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences.

This technique of consciously random urban exploration, by someone in the crowd but not part of the crowd, is employed by Baudelaire's Parisian flâneur, for instance; and by Julian Green in his captivating book Paris — which describes Green's very personal, backstreet wanderings through the French capital. It can also be evidenced in the writings of philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and more recently in the books of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

It occurs to me that many of my walks contain psychogeographic aspects, and I aim to be more aware of this in future. I'd like to read further about this fascinating subject, with its radical, multi-layered, spontaneous approach to walking.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Ambulo Ergo Sum

Chapel above Digne-les-Bains (Wikimedia)
In response to the philosopher René Descartes' famous saying, Cogito ergo sum ('I think, therefore I am'), his 17th-century contemporary Pierre Gassendi replied, Ambulo ergo sum ('I walk, therefore I am.') Gassendi had a serious point: mind and body are inseparable, in Gassendi's view, whereas Descartes believed that the mind could exist separately from the body. The act of walking perfectly illustrates the intimate mind-body connection that Gassendi had in mind. Inspired by Gassendi, the Dutch artist, Hermann de Vries, constructed an installation near Digne-les-Bains, France, Gassendi's home. He created a path up a steep mountain-side, marked with gold-tipped spikes and a stone on which are painted the words, Ambulo ergo sum. De Vries wanted the path to be difficult so that the body and mind of the walker would register the effort required.


Digne-les-Bains, capital of the French department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, is also the site of a trail connecting a series of stone sculptures and walkers' refuges which were designed and constructed by British land artist, Andy Goldsworthy.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Quietness

Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into colour.
Do it now.
You're covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you've died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.

RUMI

Friday, 16 January 2015

Placeless, Traceless

The final chapter of Nicholas Shrady's book Sacred Roads describes his pilgrimage to the tomb of Rumi in Konya, Turkey. After recent events in Europe this inclusive poem by Rumi is particularly resonant. He strips away superficial, artificial divisions to reveal what we all are:

Only Breath

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human beings.

Rumi also wrote this:

Cross and Christians, end to end, I examined. He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda. In neither was there any sign. To the heights of Herat I went, and Kandahar. I looked. He was not on height or lowland. Resolutely, I went to the top of the Mountain of Kaf. There only was the place of the Anqa bird. I went to the Kaaba. He was not there. I asked of his state from Ibn Sina: he was beyond the limits of the philosopher Avicenna . . . I looked into my own heart. In that place I saw him. He was in no other place . . .

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Walk On!


The urge to undertake a pilgrimage is both ancient and universal. The Egyptians made their way to Sekket's shrine at Bubastis; the Greeks sought counsel from Apollo at Delphi and the cures of Asclepius at Epidaurus. Quetzal, Cuzco and Titicaca were all sacred precincts in pre-Columbian America. Christian tradition draws the faithful primarily to the Holy Land, Rome, Santiago de Compostela, Fatima, Lourdes, and more recently, to Medjugorje, Bosnia, where the Virgin Mary is purported to appear daily to a group of village seers. In the Islamic world, the pilgrim's obligatory journey or hajj to Mecca is one of the Five Pillars of Faith. Buddhists venture to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment; Jews bow in prayer before the Western Wall of the Temple; and Hindus bathe in the ash-filled waters of the sacred Ganges. Every religion possesses its prescribed rites and rituals, but pilgrimage, in particular, seems to appeal to an instinctive movement of the human heart. The Latin phrase ambulare pro Deo, 'to walk for God', is as valid for a Christian pilgrim setting out for Santiago de Compostela as for a Muslim drawn to the Ka'ba shrine at Mecca, or a Buddhist circumambulating a stupa . . .

. . . The notion that God or the Absolute can be approached while journeying, I discovered, is all but universal. It is telling, for example, that Yahweh means the 'God of the Way'; or that in Arabic Il-Rah, originally used to signify a migration path, was later appropriated by the Sufi mystics to describe 'the Way to God'. Christ and his Apostles walked the hills and valleys of Palestine. The quest for Zen is also referred to as angya, or 'going on foot'. Early Buddhists were 'wandering alms-seekers'; and their master's last words to his followers were, appropriately enough, 'Walk on!' The potential pilgrim is unlikely to find two better words of advice . . .

. . . Had either the Buddha or Christ chosen a secluded, stationary life, there would be no footsteps to follow. As it was, they both exalted the peripatetic condition, and they both showed us a Path; that one leads to Nirvana, and the other to salvation and eternal life, are two very different spiritual prospects, but in both cases it is the pilgrim, the soul seeking enlightenment, who must set off on the journey. As the Buddha lay on his deathbed, he offered his followers a simple, if telling, imperative: 'Walk on!'

NICHOLAS SHRADY Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail

Ultreia! or Ultreya! is a word deriving from the ancient Galician language (and originally from the Latin word ultra) which is difficult to translate exactly, but means something like 'Walk further!', 'Walk higher!', 'Onward!' or 'Walk on!'. Camino pilgrims often come across this word scrawled graffiti-like in underpasses, on walls and alongside the ubiquitous yellow arrows which point the Way.

Ultra means 'further', 'extreme', 'radical', 'beyond the norm'. The true end of the Spanish Camino is Fistera, Finisterre, Finis Terra, The End of the Earth, the Furthest Point West in Spain, indeed the Furthest Point West in Europe. The romance and promise of the West pervades much folklore, mythology and many spiritual and quasi-spiritual beliefs (eg there's the story of the lost kingdom of Atlantis).

As I approached Toulouse by the Canal du Midi this September, a cyclist on the opposite bank called out to me 'Ultreia!', in recognition, greeting, encouragement and blessing, with one arm held high in the air, the fingers of her hand pointing skywards.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Je Suis Charlie

In front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate an hour ago. 'Freedom begins where ignorance ends.'

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

End Notes

If you must stay, stay; but I have to retreat into a desert of black sand, blacker than the beaches of Hawaii or the Canaries, where the dunes pile up like mountains, and the afterglow of sunset turns the ground rocks red, and emaciated vultures pick at the bones of travellers gone mad. There’s a harsh but real culture here, more real than the old new spun world of the sugar dad, the glamorous ad, the land of the supposedly free and glad, the domain of the rich captains and their slowly sinking ships riding the rising oceans. Better to desert with all the rats. Better that fat cats starve and that whippets rule the earth. Better the wasteland of chaste sand than the wilderness of plastic packaging and rotting fish. The cactus may tear the flesh, the prickly pear may prick, the rock may not turn into bread, but the dried-up wadi is a path and the snake is a sign and the rock a pillow — for forty days and forty nights and perhaps forever.

From a novel in progress