This week marks my first ever magazine contribution. It is a free - and gloriously advert-free - magazine, with contributions from a stunning array of experts on diet, exercise and health… and also from me. This edition has a particular bent towards movement and exercise.
It’s an online publication, and here’s the link if you are interested to have a look:
In the last six months I have found myself talking about magic more and more. It seems like the word that for me most naturally describes the indescribable mysterious creative force that animates things, the lively creature that reliably seems to snuffle its inquisitive snout into any piece of unpolluted space that I am ever able to conjure up.
This sort of space isn’t something I can rent by the hour, and time spent inside it is usually at the expense of more “productive” work-time, so I suppose I have grown to see money and magic as mutually exclusive. Although it is often the case, it is obviously something I will have to find my way around sometime soon.
Money can definitely be a magic-murderer. Its axe is out and hacking whenever I hear myself talking about “keeping a roof over my head” or “putting food on the table.” Or when I’m working today in order to play tomorrow (always tomorrow…). Fun is a frivolity, which maybe I can indulge in once the hard work is done, unless I’m too knackered or don’t feel like being silly. Silly, of course, because “I should be working”, so off I go to the office – you won’t be seeing me for a while.
There is a certain delicious virtuosity associated with this modern type of martyrdom. Lots of organisations have a vested interest in “their people” having this attitude, and sprinkle it with money, like magic dust. Such sacrifice is very rarely asked for directly of course; that would be too truthful to be palatable. Instead, it happens is such a way that I ask it of myself, telling myself I need to “secure my future”, or “give my children the best possible start in life”. Also, let’s not forget that hard work is what makes me a man. Each of these catchphrases is a nail through my hand and into the cross I’ve made. Being strung up is no fun… so it kind of feels right.
Fun is not frivolity. Fun is freedom, and freedom is as necessary for my health as air and water.
Without freedom I am powerless. And I see that feeling of powerlessness as one of the root causes of much of the closet misery that is rife, but rarely owned up to, and buried under layers of virtuous martyrdom. Invisible, self-applied shackles.
I have so often found myself in a discussion around whether the freedom to make life-enriching decisions can only come from having enough money to do so. Amazingly, there is not one person arguing this view who ever feels they have enough money yet; it serves the system of continued martyrdom wonderfully.
Money can never be a reason for incapability, it can only be a convincing excuse. The real reason is that feeling of powerlessness.
If a person knows their own power, what could possibly ever hold them back? How could anyone else ever decide what is good for them and what will make them happy, or dupe them into doing something unhealthy, or utterly tedious? The absurdity would just be laughed at with genuine humour. Such concepts are unthinkable to one who knows their own power. But I don’t see these people around much.
I think it is probably impossible to keep in touch with my own power while participating in mainstream life. The mainstream regurgitations swallowed from well-meaning parents, the lessons from well-meaning teachers in mainstream education, the messages from (not well-meaning) mainstream media and the demands and rewards from (psychopathic) mainstream business encourage conformity and dependence, and directly replace free thought and action. This powerlessness is important for the smooth-running of a system of efficient redistribution of money from large groups of poor people to small groups of rich people. But there is little free-thinking anywhere along the way, just the groupthinking power of market forces, and a whole lot of unwhole people virtuously and voluntarily cutting off their own limbs.
It is my challenge, and will soon be my children’s challenge, to chuck away the axe and the martyr-like servitude and get down to the very unserious business of conjuring magical power.
Money is not bad, it is just magnetic. It gets attracted to sources of power. I would rather that be my own source rather than someone else’s; to live by means of adventure rather than torture.
I wrote about a paradox around happiness a few weeks ago. I found I was subsequently asked “What does make you happy then?” At the time, my only answer was that it feels like the wrong question.
On reflection, maybe a better question to ask myself is “What am I doing to discover what makes me happy?”
For me, the hidden treasure is proving to be found in the digging rather than in the chest I might desperately hope to find. Any process of slow discovery will be full of happiness and confusion and disappointment, and it seems to me that the full range of emotion is what gives me wellbeing and a vivid sense of human-ness… along with a welcome lack of stress around achieving the happy part.
Focusing purely on happiness tends to lead me to short term measures of achieving a shallow, fleeting gratification (one reliable clue is whenever it involves paying for or consuming something). This is a quest for a monochrome of emotion which is bound to end up unfulfilling and numb, far from the intended rapture. As long as sadness and bewilderment are seen as bad things, there is little hope for a peaceful life.
So if it’s not about happiness, perhaps it’s about motion, hearty struggle, finding out about oneself without judgment, and experiencing and accepting the diversity of feeling that comes with it. I can’t slam the shutters, hide indoors and hope happiness filters in through the catflap. The door has to be open wide to allow the emotional air to circulate into every musty corner, or life will lack the oxygen to thrive.
Or better yet, exit the container entirely and head towards the source rather than wait for it to come to me.
One of the things I have only recently in life found to be reliably and delightfully true is that the universe always answers – the safety net always appears for genuine jumpers, even if the assistance appears weird and wonky, and very unlike the neat and shiny apparition I had imagined.
There is an army of Hairy Godmothers just waiting to be invited along.
It took me 39 chances, but this year I finally learned how to love winter; to love it for what it is rather than see it as the unpleasant thing before spring. Luckily, I will now have half a lifetime of lovely winters.
I am happy that spring is here. But I have enjoyed this winter more than I ever thought possible, even though it has been the wettest in 250 years apparently. It think it’s because I stopped and noticed it. Winter is subtle, and I needed to earn its friendship; it is not quite so freely given as the other seasons. Winter is strong and silent. There’s a lot going on under the surface. It’s easy to think it is grumpy and unplayful.
Winter is full of hidden gems, surprises invited out by the astonishing change that winter preludes and sets up. Here are a few of my favourites of the last three months…
- Campfires in the cold
- The silhouette of bare trees
- Mornings that smell of mountains
- Forest views unobstructed by leaves and bracken
- Buds: as distinctive as leaves, just smaller
- Moss. The nonconformist who likes to grow during winter
- Billows of foggy breath on waking up in the morning (generally when outside; have not been allowed to recreate this in my bedroom)
- Hats: No need to think about hairstyles
- Bright creamy sprouts pushing out of dark brown chestnuts and acorns
- The central heating coming on while I’m sat against a radiator
- The surprise of the first snowdrop, the alien splash of colour from the crocuses, the unexpected appearance of daffodils in the middle of the lawn
- The delight of the first visit from the bumblebee, brimstone butterfly, spider
- Putting fresh hailstones in my sandwich
Goodbye winter until December - there is now a better reason to look forward to Christmas, than Christmas.
So it’s a Sunday night, it’s pitch black. I’m all alone cycling on an old train track between East Grinstead and Forest Row, with the cone of light from by bike lamp giving me a 5 metre warning on any potholes or deadfall.
I’m feeling fortified because my friend the Cartooning Psychologist told me that rapes and axe murders usually tend to be carried out by people known to the victim, and none of my mates as far as I know will be hanging out on Sustrans route 21 in the cold winter evening. So rather than worry about death, I can look up a bit and appreciate what’s around me.
And it’s beautiful. Moody empty fields and patches of dark woodland on either side, white rabbits and ginger foxes darting across my light cone now and again. And a totally clear sky, with stars brighter than I ever remember seeing in England. I’m cycling directly towards Orion, I can see all the bits quite clearly, including that sword scabbard hanging from his belt which I can’t usually spot. And the moon is amazing, one of those thin bright sickles, where you can also see the rest of the sphere very dimly lit.
One thought that crosses my mind is that my wife Anna would like this. Then it occurs to me that Anna could probably never allow herself this wonderful experience accessible by cycling alone at night in the middle of nowhere. She’s a woman and there’s more to worry about; the odds of badness are still slim I guess, but much worse odds than mine, just because I’m a man.
Simply being a man gives me an invisible privilege, allowing me, amongst other things, to cycle carefree in the deserted darkness and marvel at the stars.
I’m sure that being a white man counts as a double invisible privilege, and I simply carry less baggage in the eyes of judgmental Mother Culture. I could go on: education, family… lots of serious advantages I could take for granted.
How do I use that privilege? was the question that formed as I cycled along. I didn’t have to work for that privilege, but I also didn’t ask for it; either way, I have it. I used to use my invisible privilege to accumulate quite some means for myself, and comfort and convenience. What other ideas might I have for conducting myself, while under the questioning gaze of Orion?
One option is to use my invisible privilege to accumulate even more means and comfort and convenience. But this option feels rather unfair and inappropriate, as well as brain- and soul-rotting.
Aside from being a Diversity Manager’s worst nightmare, I was born into a number of advantages that a huge number of people will never be able to attain. I can’t give it away, it’s stuck to me, so the least I can do is enjoy it in a healthy way. But how do I also share it in a healthy way?
It’s nice how sometimes remembering to look up at the glorious stars on a Sunday night, exercising my invisible privilege, can remind me of a few truths, and send down a few important questions.
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..?