This prolonged wet season has allowed me to learn a thing or two from clouds.
They come in many forms: goals are clouds, so are insecurities, expectations and the urge to buy things. Emotions too - transient things.
Clouds can either be allowed to pass by, or I can grab them, attach myself to them, wreath myself in clouds like a wooly suit of armour. In the sky, they are the most visible things after all, which makes them highly grabbable; they can often seem like they are the only things there. A cloud clutched on to changes from a harmless passing thing into a crappy story.
One good example of an old cloud of mine was when I held on to the idea that I am not a creative person. A friend of mine had one – he used to believe he was afraid of heights. Both of these stuck around until the straightforward work was done to let go of them, at which point they utterly dissipated. The ‘affliction’ was somehow little more than a choice.
Clouds don’t have to be permanent, but they can be made permanent, because they are real for as long as they are given substance. And since they are only real for as long as they are clung onto, it makes them all pretty hollow, empty things – not the sort of blocks to build a robust being with. Careers, opinions, habits – all fluffy bags of bugger all.
The most interesting thing for me that I’m wondering here is, once the clouds have gone by, what is left? It probably can’t be defined or taught – just experienced, and maybe understood through a process of letting go of things. Confusingly, if I’ve held onto clouds for too long, there might not be too much there, and much yet to be made.
If I choose, I can give myself the time and the space to explore for myself what it might mean to puff the illusions away.
When a person starts to suspect that an entire system is mistaken and destructive, what does that person do next?
Unfortunately, I’m not clear on that yet. I think it might be different for everyone (other than the requirement to step off the system’s crowded train), and each person’s challenge to find out, if they feel like it. Perhaps it’s each person’s greatest challenge, and it has been ever since humans started thinking; an archetypal quest. A quest that does not in any way serve the interest of the system we are currently in, so it gets played down or even forgotten.
But those who develop a taste for freedom have to do something about it, right? When I look at what free people are doing in their diverse ways, and try to make sense of how my own version is emerging, I notice two common processes: Motion turning into a Mission and Craft turning into a Medium.
The search for truth. The inner journey. Not staying static. This trip, available to anyone should they wish to go, is a leap into the psychological and emotional unknown, which is what happens when a person switches off auto-pilot, starts thinking for themselves, and begins to notice the enormous personal and cultural elephants in their room. As far as I can tell, it involves – it requires - being utterly lost; that is the root of its creativity. Things happen when I step off the recommended path. I begin to notice things I never really noticed before, and care about things I never before cared about.
Whenever it happens that the wide angle provided by Motion narrows into a tighter focus, this may be the Mission presenting itself, offering its invitation.
I have tried not to stop and ask myself whether there is much sense in all the time I am spending writing, drawing cartoons, whittling, making fires in the woods, tracking deer footprints, writing and telling stories, slapping a drum and all the other experiments I have been carrying out. I have just enjoyed falling in love with these activities and immersing myself in them.
And I have begun to understand that when a Craft gains a sense of purpose beyond enjoyably passing the time, it becomes a Medium (social justice through cross stitch? It’s possible – see here).
And when a Mission is projected through a Medium, then you may really have discovered treasure.
I can’t say I have any Mission, or that I am adept enough at many of my odd collection of offerings for them to become effective Media… but it will happen, inevitably… I just can’t predict how.
As with all mysterious things, magical combinations of don’t happen in a linear way, but by committing to trying to live open- and whole-heartedly.
So today I am satisfied with delighting in my Crafts, and embracing whatever my Motion entails, and having faith that this in itself is enough. And not to overextend myself to worry about Missions and Media as they probably operate without me even being aware of them anyway.
Mysteries are cheeky like that. I’ll focus on what I can influence, and put the rest in the hands of the gods.
I get the feeling that our culture does not contain the ingredients to create mature men and women, which is worrying for our future. If this is true, there would be many complex reasons behind it, and it seems to me that one of the major contributors is our alienation from nature.
The picture of nature that I have grown up with is one that has been dragged down and portrayed as a competitive struggle for survival in a hostile environment that doesn’t care, where rational self-interest is what motivates germs, gerbils and Germans. Like some big leafy marketplace full of greedy transacting merchants trying to leg each other over. This is a typically man-made image; our story of biology has merged into our concept of economics, to suit the way we are behaving.
Artificial nature will breed artifical men (and women). What men are we?
Real nature, like real men, can be fierce, spontaneous, commanding, but also deeply caring and nurturing. And if these energies are directed only at self-preservation, it results in chaos – men who are lost, uninitiated, imprisoned in a child’s mentality, chasing status like sweeties.
What might put men back in touch with their true potentialities? Deep experience in real nature is surely one way, with all its sticky struggle and wondrous abundance.
A species cannot have such comfort and safety as we have without great cost, and without the balance being restored elsewhere. Nature is not comfortable. It is full of pain and tribulation, as well as full of deep contentment. Not only have many societies managed to lose their experience of this deep contentment and self-reliance, replacing it with the shallow comforts of the false friends of predictability and convenience (for a ‘lucky’ number of people in reality, and for most only in aspiration), we have also managed to export the toll of that numbing comfort onto other people, onto other animals, and onto our own life support system. And, in so doing, back onto ourselves.
It’s not about nature itself; I see nature as a gate – for walking through, not for sitting on or clinging onto. So I don’t mean New Age tree-hugging, or any other modern idolatry. Nature is one route, and a very effective one, through to touching the exuberant, potent, demanding, healing, dangerous, messy realm of primal human-ness, and encountering inside ourselves the wild, deep-feeling and whole creatures that we are capable of being, existing as part of a greater organism. This is instead of being ushered towards a destructive, abominated and lost version – either getting fat, ugly and bored on one side of the poverty line, or emaciated, desperate and violent on the other.
All this seems to me something so vitally important, and exciting, to be talking about, but I find it so hard to come across the conversations.
The great paradox of our age: the things that are generally understood to make me happy, make me completely unhappy.
Is it possible that almost any piece of “common sense”, any piece of general advice, anything other than what is discovered by me, on my own, through hard searching, might only suit other people’s interests, and rarely mine? Sure it is – how could something as personal as happiness ever be defined and delivered by someone else?
Some economists of happiness recommend the “consumption of experiences” rather than material items. Brands providing consumers with “social currency” through experiences is the new frontier… not in happiness though, but in consumerism. The consumer is still working his tits off, but for a holiday (because he is exhausted) instead of a car, and still not seeing his family, having time to be friendly, or discovering for himself what makes his heart sing. Meanwhile, employers rake it in, and GDP measurers breathe a sigh of relief that the delusion is still intact.
Money, progress, pursuit of status, they all suit that system wonderfully.
What is the biggest indicator of how those things that are supposed to make us happy, makes us miserable? Choose one: depression, obesity, anorexia, male suicide, sexual abuse, alcoholism, workaholism, divorce… all rocketing ahead as we follow common sense. All fuelled by the Perfectly Normal. Right in my face but I look straight through it when I am subscribed to that system; I understand it’s happening but I don’t see how it relates to my Perfectly Normal life. I either think it “has nothing to do with me” or “there’s nothing I can do about it”. Two classic rationalisations in a twisted situation.
And while I’m atrophying at my desk I’ll think “I’m just fine”, and as far as business is concerned I am. Obese workaholics are making amazing economic contributions that appear to outweigh the unmeasured (unmeasurable) social costs, so they should be proud of themselves.
Or maybe I try to do something – some green consumerism (still consumerism, naturally) or a bit of self-improvement like jogging (buy some shoes and an app and reward myself afterwards), both common sense suggestions to address a sense of malaise that I believe I am not alone in feeling. Both guaranteed to reinforce unhappiness as long as they are guilt responses, rather than coming out of hard investigation into what truly makes me – just me – happy… and then acting on it.
I increasingly suspect that happiness lies in the dark (not “bad”, just dark) places where I don’t usually think to go; a deal with the underworld. The common sense of consumerism has nothing to offer on that front. The reverse actually – its forceful messages seek to keep me searching for happiness under the artificial streetlights, and away from moonlight. Hence the paradox.
The princess’s golden ball lies at the bottom of the murky pond, the frog is actually a prince, and the beautiful queen is really a wicked witch. These delicate offerings of ancient wisdom, the pointers away from the paradox, have been drowned by “Coke Is It” and GDP-ism.
If I am not self-directed and have not deeply connected with the magic that makes my soul fly, then I am a dead man walking, following the zombie herd. And no matter how much world-saving, money-earning, or fashion-following I do, I will only breathe death into it. But when I do begin to ignore common sense, drop the water wings of modern culture, and dive to the slimy depths, I discover I can breathe below the surface of things… and that’s when the lifeblood does begin to circulate.
Could it be a possibility? That the things we can make ourselves miserable trying to obtain, actually make us even more miserable? So deeply mistaken by illusion that the truth sits like an elephant in the room? This absurdity is becoming increasingly obvious to me. Martians, gods and other cosmic forces must be crying as they watch, either from laughter or grief.
Future generations might laugh too, as long as we haven’t entirely burned their house down in the pursuit of unhappiness.
The world is crying out for a new kind of leadership, which is making it a much-debated topic. I like the way some of the discussion has gone, that leadership isn’t limited to a handful of charismatic men and women doing remarkable things, but can be about anybody, and doesn’t have to make the papers.
For me, the essence of leadership is Mysterious, and far from formulaic. This makes it a very delicate issue, and prone to being turned to stone, especially when too much standard discussion and analysis helps me to look in the wrong places for leaders and mentors. Many of the beings with the most to offer perhaps do not think or care about notions of leadership, and have therefore been absent from much of the leadership debate.
I now view many mentors I had in the past more as Herders than Leaders. Herders are authoritative administrators, with clear visions (visions do not necessarily have to be inspiring), whose job is usually (or becomes) to protect and expand business as usual. They are basically sheep who have stepped up to lead the other sheep - a diluted form of leadership which is popular because it is obvious and requires less effort.
They have plenty of sheepdogs at their service. The concept of a career is a good sheepdog. So is advertising, social pressure, rewards, praise or simply privilege of position (I’m your FATHER!! Do as I say).
The phenomena I am increasingly noticing and responding to are probably better called Heralds rather than Leaders. There the Herald stand in the field of sheep, the unknown figure pointing in a different direction, invisible to me when I have the wool over my eyes. I am sure the Herald doesn’t care for a moment what I do, just that I go.
The heralded path to leadership involves being unable to articulate what one is doing, too lost to have a vision. Being wonderfully lost, genuinely bewildered, seems to me to be something that is desperately lacking these days, as the treasures we are in so much need of surely lie not in the crowded, trampled field, but inside the deep dark forest. Full of wolves – not good for sheep. Full of heralds too, I think – nature is laced with a million metaphors for how to lead a rich life full of art.
The Herder provides nothing new, just leaves me stuck in a field. The Herald talks to me about freedom and suggests I bugger off and leave him alone, and check out the forest for a while.
And with that done, can I possibly guess where the leadership I seek might emerge from..?
I was interested to find out a few facts about Queen Elizabeth I’s famous and celebrated face.
When she was a young adult, she suffered from smallpox, which left her face scarred for the rest of her life – partly due to the disease, and partly from the mercury she was treated with, that burned off the top layer of her skin. This is why she wore the white makeup, also to hide the signs of ageing. This white make-up, called ceruse, was a mixture of white lead and vinegar, and was poisonous. The disease also left her half bald, so she wore wigs, which were decorated with pearls but were crawling with lice.
She bathed 3 times a year, and covered up her B.O. with pints of perfume. Her teeth were mottled and stained, so they were cleaned with a mixture of honey, salt, pumice and brick dust. It made the stains go, but also rotted away most of her teeth eventually. Her lips were reddened with vermilion – red crystalline mercuric sulphide – which ate painfully into the flesh of her lips and left them cracked. Belladonna was dripped into her eyes, which nicely dilated her pupils but fogged her vision.
Her advisers made sure that no-one drew any attention to these conditions, on pain of serious punishment, and wonderful portraits were instead made of the Queen of the Golden Age.
- She hid her wounds with make-up and insisted they didn’t exist so she could appear faultless, while meanwhile they festered
- The measures she took to cover herself up were poisonous to her system, and permanently uncomfortable
- Her personal moments were dominated by purely cosmetic matters
- She couldn’t see properly through her own mask
- If anyone spoke the truth, or portrayed her as ugly, she had them silenced
- So she was surrounded by obsequious sycophants
- And her habits really caught on; her agonising sacrifices became the height of fashion, which made it all seem completely normal to brutalise your own face
Could Queen Elizabeth’s face from 500 years ago be a worryingly accurate metaphor for our own culture today?
I have another story to offer. This one is a new experiment – it’s an illustrated audio story. They feel better when they’re kept in the ‘oral tradition’ somehow (thanks Nat for the idea!)
This story is about how economics might lead things astray, and how one might find a way home…
It seems to me that, sometimes, the existence of mysteries is proven by the fact that I can’t see them.
I have a six-year-old daughter called Mia who, like many children, loves art. I love her art too. That is, I love it when it’s art, but sometimes it’s just drawing. Drawing has a magical ingredient missing, and when I watch Mia it becomes clearer to me what it might be.
Mia’s art contains magic whenever she quietly sits there and produces something, without an audience or the opportunity or intention to show anyone. Her art is contained in those fabulous pieces of paper I find left carelessly on the table, or even better, hidden from my sight under a pile of stuff. Made in the moment, and then moved on, but the paper is left crackling with something special.
If ever I ask to see her art, or if I lumber into her solitude, she inevitably shows me what she’s doing, and something has to be said or she’ll naturally take offence. She takes it that I am impressed, goes off, and draws another picture in order to impress some more. And that picture is always a drawing, never art.
I’m beginning to think that magic in all its forms can only be discovered by someone else, secretly; never performed or spoon-fed. It seems that the moment something is done in order to have an impact or a result, the heart and soul is instantly ripped from it.
With a goal-filled history, I do find this condundrum quite difficult to deal with, as I struggle to discover art. But for me the image of Mia and her drawings brings me some clarity.
Maybe stories with mythical symbols – princesses and giants and God – try and describe what is present in Mia when she’s making art, and absent when she’s performing a picture. Magic that a person might have faith in, but will lose if ever they try and wield it to impress, make the news or change the world.
The belief that sitting doing apparently nothing is passive and lazy is one that has been bothering me. I think I have always had a very narrow understanding of what “active” means. The concept of how sitting quietly might be the most active and productive expression possible is a strange one to grasp. Especially when using my head, which loves to be busily scribbling, and snorts at the soul’s peaceful artwork.
But sometimes, when I notice how magnificent it is to just be sat there listening to the leaves rustle, and in that moment I feel the magic evaporate because I have noticed it, I begin to understand. Sometimes even when there’s just myself as an audience, the art can scurry away. But I can increasingly smell its vapour trail, and it helps me appreciate the less obvious possibilities…
Suddenly, being quiet and letting the universe and everything in it be nothing other that what it actually is, does feel like one of the most powerful and productive acts imaginable. Maybe many of the problems in the world arise from frantic endeavours to try and fix them, fighting the current, inevitably in a public way, driving away the magic.
I do not intend to sit silently in the woods all my life; this quiet yet volcanic state seems not so much like a happy place to settle, but instead an important place to properly know, and an excellent place from where to begin anything - to ensure outward action is about art rather than audiences.
My aspirations always used to revolve around what my available resources made possible. Do I have enough money? Do I have children? What else am I capable of doing to earn a living? This rational and economic approach is entirely understandable, as it seems to be the only language that is spoken any more. It is a language that the soul does not comprehend.
The hulking, scientific, modern part of myself can have a sterile conversation about sterile freedom. But it won’t include my subtle, messy, ancient part, which is usually the place where dreams and aspirations spring from. This place cannot be visited by clinging to security and predictability, the prison of the status quo.
If I dream of change, is it just me wanting to break free for a little while, but basically keep as much the same as possible? If so, I might view freedom as a brief getaway, a sabbatical, some space to relax. I’ll probably feel a bit guilty about relaxing. I’ll limit my imagination to what my resources allow, or worse: to become a worshipper of economics, imagination gets an unspoken sacrifice. And all the while, my soul is crying out from its little locked box.
What happens when it becomes normal to ignore what our hearts scream out for? That’s a story that’s playing out a thousand different ways every day, just look in the newspaper (once).
Basing choices on my resources is a convincing excuse to avoid addressing what I am really longing for. When it comes to being true to my heart’s desire, the real question is: What am I prepared to sacrifice? And I find, that when I connect more and more deeply with my longing, the answer is: Practically everything. In a certain light, the modern, resourcey things seem so less important, and ripe for a deliberate sacrifice, as opposed to the numb, inattentive forfeit of ancient elements like imagination.
To add an extra twist, I usually don’t know what I am actually longing for, just that I am longing. It’s like a secret that needs to be found out, quite different from the up-front answers that I have always demanded. It’s hidden beyond my current resources, invisible through the goggles of logic. The secret is different for everyone, which is why it’s a secret that can never be shared like a formula.
I have faith that there is treasure buried deeply within Sacred Space. Sacred in the sense of being removed from hypnotised, riskless, mass-market thinking – a quiet space with no judgment or expectation. A space where imagination can resurrect, and invite in mystery and possibility. Work hard to create the space, and the rest takes care of itself.
Human beings can have experiences that strike a deep chord within us; a poem, a wild dream, a moment of intimacy. The modern part says that these are rare events, blips on the desirable steady chart. The ancient part whispers that there is an entire harp within us, begging to be played. I long for the feeling of human-ness, I grieve its absence. But it requires work – unpaid. And some choices.
Too many choices are made in the cold light of day. Some of the most vital, soulful ones need to be made in the pale moonlight.
I met a storyteller this year who told me, gravely, that if he does not totally understand the story he’s thinking of telling (preferably by having lived inside it), then he shouldn’t tell it, as to do so is damaging and irresponsible. I’ve picked up that with several native American tribes, when a person was ill, the first thing they did was to find out what stories they had been listening to; they might have been Bad Medicine.
Around Christmastime there are loads of old stories going round, but so many of them just seem to be empty now – I wonder whether any tellers understand them any more, and I wonder what might be lost, aside from just the stories’ meaning.
Take the story of the birth of Christ. Mythologically speaking, the donkey and the virgin and the child and the angel and the shepherd and the oxen feeding on hay and the gold and the myrrh and no room at the inn all symbolise different parts of my own earthly human nature or experience. But I have no idea what they do actually symbolise, as I have never had a conversation with anyone about it, especially when growing up, when I really needed it. Emptied of meaning, it turns from a deeply valuable source of guidance and inspiration into an annual re-run of Eastenders, just a passing seasonal distraction, a donkey ride.
That’s one of the main features of the modern approach to entertainment - the replacement of the need for a busy person’s own imagination and no requirement to think. Mythologically, Christ dies before even making it to the Cross, and the Christ in me has less chance of ever being born.
When mythology and symbolism are lost, I might then go on to make the mistake of believing that these events actually happened. Rich metaphor degenerates past mere historical fiction and into true events. And I might spend my time trying to work out the logistics of what the shepherds did with their sheep when they buggered off to follow that star, rather than exploring the image. Instead of following the direction it suggests, the metaphorical compass gets worn like a pretty necklace.
I might even take it so far that I want to visit the place where it happened. Last week someone said to me “Did you know that all the characters in Winnie the Pooh actually represent different traits within us?” No, but what a wonderful thought; I wish that had considered that 3 decades ago! Instead, I visited the Pooh Sticks Bridge down the road in Ashdown Forest (I didn’t get charged, fortunately, but it certainly does attract lots of valuable tourist traffic to the area). When symbols get mistaken for the real things they represent, God grows a beard, becomes a He, and says he’ll torture you for eternity if you are naughty. Mythology talks empoweringly to the soul, but it’s quicker and easier to take it literally as mere entertainment… or use it to formally coerce people.
Which is where Santa comes in, the patron saint of Behavioural Science and Consumerism. He is sponsored by big business, which I and many other people lament (yet have totally and meekly accepted). He is Coca-Cola’s version of Saint Nicholas (that is something you can take literally), a symbol of generosity turned into a bright red man who makes me buy things in His name and bribe my kids to Be Good. The story makes no sense as there are many logistical issues (we have no flat roof for the sleigh, we have no chimney, he’s a fat bastard anyway), and the symbolism has been consumerised to nothingness. ”Daddy, is this present from you or from Santa?” “Why did he use our wrapping paper?” The lie is so mindlessly told that imaginations never leave deep freeze in the North Pole. And ultimately, it leads to an inevitable climactic breach of trust… which also gets paid no mind, it just adds to the rest.
My children will suffer if I destroy the magic and meaning of generosity. Not only has the meaning been lost, it seems that it’s been forgotten that there was ever any meaning in the first place. Elsewhere in the year, through a similar process, I might casually destroy the magic of community, intimacy, creativity. When the secret, subtle channels of symbolism die, an ancient route to secret, subtle real things is severed and the real things can die too. All that’s left is empty words, busy parents and temporarily obedient children who aren’t talking to their souls.
Santa ain’t coming to town this year. I think we’ll hide a couple of presents in the garden, deny all knowledge and let them make up their own stories.
Magic can exist, if a space is created for it to return to.