To Dream, To Float, To Glorify

  This week I submitted a translation I have been working on for 5 months, of an Ibn ‘Arabi book on the 99 Names of God that had previously been translated into Spanish (I was translating it into English). It’s been a labour of love but also a “gift-laden carpet”* in many extraordinary ways.

This uy again.

This guy again.

  The most transformative part of the work, of course, was just going over the meanings of the 99 Names over and over again, discovering new nuances. It is astonishing how few of them are negative, in our understanding of the word (Al-Muntaqim – the Avenger – and Al-Darr – the Bringer of Harm – are the only two that spring to mind; al-Mumit, the Bringer of Death, doesn’t really count, as death can be the most beautiful release, depending on how much you want it).

  On the other hand, there are dozens of Names that relate to generosity, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness: Al-Rahman (The All-Compassionate), Al-Rahim (The All-Merciful), Al-Ghafar, Al-Ghafur, Al-Ghaffar (variations on the Most Forgiving), At-Tawwab (He who turns towards the one turning towards Him), Al-Sattar (He who conceals faults), Al-Karim (The Generous), Al-Jawad (He Who gives before being asked), Al-Halim (The Mild), Al-Wasi’ (The All-Embracing, as in the Qur’anic verse “His mercy embraces all things”), al-Wali (The Protecting Friend), Al-Wadud (The Loving), Al-Wahhab (in contrast to the religious conservatives who have taken on this name, it means The Giving)…

  I shouldn’t be so surprised, but the impression that one often gets of Islam is that it encourages fear of God, fear of hell, fear of a patriarchal system that is supposed to order every aspect of our lives. But the reality, when you pull those appearances apart, is quite the opposite. It’s enough to melt a heart frozen stiff with fear.

  Even though I’ve been Muslim all my life, or perhaps precisely because of that, I have so often found it easy to slip into assumptions about what a Muslim life is like. There always needs to be a balance between the intellectual, the ethical, the practical and the aesthetic. What often happens is that one or more of these is neglected; our faith limps along cock-eyed, developing achy joints as a result of its poor coordination.

  And then we innocently go to the nearest, quickest reference points to seek out an uplifting hadith, quote, du’a or bit of history: Sheikh Google, his wife Binti YouTube and their hyperactive son, Ibn Facebook. Apart from those things that are posted by friends, whose intentions we know well enough to trust, we emerge from these virtual encounters riddled with gunshot wounds inflicted by different doctrinal angles, and shell-shocked at the bigoted, insulting, or downright stupid ideas (not to mention actions) of some Muslims.

  I think it was because of my need for something that really went deep that this book landed on my table. Ibn A. seems to have a knack for explaining even the most intricate existential problems (such as the existence of evil – he says that transgressions, being brought into existence by God, ask forgiveness from Him on behalf of the place where they are carried out – that is, in the person doing them). Some of these issues have dogged me for years; no-one else has put them straight for me satisfactorily. My intellectual side can be dragged out of the closet and de-mothballed at last, to rejoin my daily wardrobe of selves.

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi's works - which numbered about 200

Medieval manuscript of Ibn Arabi’s works – which numbered about 200

  One of the things that has hooked me most is his etymology. Sufism has a long tradition of finding correlations between words with the same letters in a different order – hence the link between ‘to do, act’ (عمل) and ‘to know’ (علم), i.e. don’t act without knowledge; or words whose graphics are the same when the vowels are not written – such as عالم, which can mean ‘knower’ (‘alim) or ‘cosmos’ (‘alam); or words whose letters themselves (each one of which has not only a numerical value associated with it but also meanings of their own, such as ʿayn, which means the letter ع, eye, spring or source) provide them with other shades of meaning: so, you could say, عدم, meaning ‘non-existence’, is differentiated from ادم, Adam, by the ‘ayn that is his eye (and thus his all-important witnessing) and the Source that brought him into being.

    Everything in existence is, by Sufi logic, a sign of Allāh – including, of course, ourselves – so nothing is coincidental. All things and beings, events and non-events, are alive with meaning. Because Arabic evolved as a language for the purpose of receiving divine revelation, all of these little correlations are clues left for the careful observer to trip over, their faces lighting up with glee at what a gem was left lying around for anyone to find.

  One of these correlations dawned on me the other night, late, when my brain had slipped out of analytical, left-brain mode and into that dream-like, perceptive state usually populated (in my brain, at this hour) by complete gibberish.

  It was this: the verb سبح, which in form I means ‘to swim, to float’ and hence ‘to transcend’, and which in form II is translated as ‘to glorify, exalt, extol’ (as in the expression ‘سبحان الله’, translated as ‘Transcendent is Allāh’ or ‘Exalted is Allāh’), combines these two nuances for a very good reason.

  When we utter (or feel) the phrase ‘subḥān’Allāh’ – on seeing something extraordinary or astonishing, or realising something that inspires awe in us, or simply when recognising the incredible beauty, harmony, or logic of something – not only do we extol Allāh, but we transcend the mundane hamster-wheel of negativity that we wade through in our daily lives ourselves.

  So, while these clever little connections leap out at the word nerd and light them up like a Christmas tree, in fact everything has the ability to have that effect if we only paid enough attention to it – or, perhaps, the right kind of attention.

lenticular clouds, orgiva

  Which leads me to another little light-bulb that blinked on this week: that in order to become a friend of God (the term used in Arabic to mean a saint), perhaps what’s needed is to treat everything as a friend – loved ones, strangers, all creatures, nature, water, time, space… – because it all exists in and because of Divine Reality. It’s easy to make a big show of religion, to wear pious-looking gear and be kind to the poor and needy, and then snap at a child because they their need for breakfast does not coincide with my desire to get up and make it. What do you mean that’s not universal?

  Several of the Companions mentioned that they never saw anything but that they saw Allah in, behind, or with it. And a famous Sufi training story tells how a fish went swimming through the ocean, asking everyone where the water was. I might only taste a drop of it of this ocean, but it leaves me realising how thirsty I am for it.

*An aphorism of the Shadhili Sufi master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari reads: “States of need are like gift-laden carpets”. See also my previous post Song for the Crocodiles.

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The Old Moon in the New Moon’s Arms

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Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

  Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
  Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
  Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
  Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.

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  This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
  But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
  The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
  As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
  Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.

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  As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
  I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
  If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
  I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
  Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
 And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.

 

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(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter: http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/vegetables-grow-winter-how-guide.)

School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

Song for the Crocodiles

London, 27th August 2013

 

  Crouched among biodynamic farms an ancient coppiced woodlands, like a child suppressing laughter in a game of hide-and-seek, is the breathtakingly lovely Emerson College in Sussex, whose festival of storytelling ‘Everything Under the Sun’ took place over Bank Holiday weekend. Improv, world folk tales, listening for the story that is waiting to emerge from the most forgettable object – the experience was so light, shocking in the simpleness of its fun, it felt like it was changing my approach to writing with every minute that passed.

  Reflecting on it over the past few days, the shock lay in remembering how alive I feel in the making of a story, or the performing – the telling – of one. It is about as far removed from the illusion that fiction appears to be as a ship so far from shore that only the ocean can be seen. 

  It’s something I’ve struggled with a little over the years; Sufism has everything to do with reality, with freedom from illusion, but story-crafting seems to be all about dipping into the imagination and even – when it’s a really good – being lost in it. Wahm, vain fantasy or illusion, is spoken about in derogative terms; I have read several prayers seeking protection from it.

  Meanwhile, another question – interconnected to the previous one – has been on my mind, more and more over the last few years: how can a child be raised in such a way that s/he does not lose that wondrous state of openness, of sensitivity and play, that children gift us with – when we can stop our frenetic activity and enjoy it with them? Or, put differently, is it possible to bring up children in such a way that their instinctive trust, their belief in what they cannot see, remains undimmed without stunting their growth into adulthood?

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman - see her website www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman – see her website http://www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

  The two questions came together at this festival. Well-known for having a strong Waldorf connection (storytelling is central to Steiner school education), the storytellers showed me very plainly that adults do not have to lose that sense of wonderment and playfulness, can remain free-spirited and open without falling into silliness, vain fantasy, or the kind of wimpy escapism that often gets associated with alternative education (or, indeed, a certain breed of religionists).

  On the contrary; these were deeply wise people, not in the way you’d perhaps envision wisdom (no long wispy beards or monk hats), but in a way that was integrated into adult competence and confidence, our ability to organise and lead and teach. 

  The impression I had, particularly from a creative nature walk I took with Malcolm Greene, veteran storyteller and teacher at Emerson (and elsewhere), was of an adult who welcomed every new idea without criticising for the sake of being bigger than the one criticised – yet that didn’t mean he wouldn’t call out a clanger.

  I was astonished at my own amazement that this was possible. I wonder where I got the idea that adults had to be cynical, that without this ‘healthy’ cynicism they would come across as childish – by which, I regret to say, I mean pathetically weedy? Instead I felt completely respected, heard, ‘met’ as an adult, but the inner playfulness I hardly ever dared to let out (except while playing with my kids) was fully met, too.

  One of the exercises we did was to find an object in the woods we had walked to and turn it into a story. So a fern became the original Christmas tree for early British people, who were really very small, and who would gather together at ritual times and dance around the fern plant, kicking away the damp humus on the floor, eating the tiny white pearly mushrooms that were actually drops of elf milk that had spilt from hazelnut shells carried by mothers who had rushed too quickly to their children at night, while the amber beech leaf was in fact the lost earring of the gossamer lady of the lake (a crumpled spiderweb), who was coming to the dance and dropped it…

  There is a huge difference between thinking a story like this and making it up together with other adults, telling it excitedly in bursts as each one thinks of a new thread. We are kids again. It’s a new game. The feeling is wonderful; the adults in us are still there, providing us with thesaurus searches when we need a good word, but the playfulness is back and as vivid as it was when we were six. You inner child is alive and realer than you’d think.

  Which brings me back to the education question. What causes a child to shut off that vivid reality, in which anything could be anything else? Is it really as simple as using plastic toys, playing video games, or watching television, as many a Steiner school will tell you?

  I don’t think those things help, especially. But I think there is something we do as parents that is far more influential in this sense. We tell our children to stop being so silly.

  Remember that? “Don’t be ridiculous.” “Act your age” (a real dose of adult idiocy there). “Stop crying.” “Be a big boy.” Or even the unforgivably cruel, “Grow up.” Is that the example we were expected to grow up to be? 

  Quite apart from the damage done in negating the things pictured in the technicolour showstopper of a child’s imagination, I would like to point out that being silly is really very amusing. I have a friend who recently admitted that she has a photo from her wedding night in which she and her new husband posed as the freakish inbred villagers from the League of Gentlemen. I am unashamed to admit I do a lot of silly walks, dances, faces, gibberish invented songs, partly to distract my kids from incipient brat-outs, and partly just to get a laugh. It’s cheaper than putting a family through psychotherapy in years to come. I see it as a sound investment.

  Perhaps we are so keen to cut off the imaginative drive because of the fears that so often brew in the cauldron of that wildly creative brain. My kids have told me on countless occasions that there is a monster in the house. At some point, I stopped saying ‘Don’t be silly’, and started listening to them. 

  It was hard at first, remembering the fear that rises like floodwater at the thought of these perceptions; many times I have also felt the presence of something peculiar, or benign,  or even protective, or simply a being who is sitting on the sofa, keeping me company. At times the feeling is suffocating (the toilets at my best friend’s studio are definitely home to something creepy, I can almost feel it closing a hand over my throat; no surprise her 3 year old son says there’s an octopus in there). 

  It might be difficult to believe what I’m saying; we’ve all been given so much conditioning that monsters don’t really exist in the closet, there are no crocodiles under the bed, nothing is looking in the window at night…yet horror films love to play on these fears, and if you remember being a child, I can guarantee you can remember the chill you felt of lying alone in a dark room, or going to the bathroom at night, or going into the garden at night – why was it always at night?

  Let me tell you story now, and you can choose to believe it or not. Last night, I was working on a translation. It was a book by Ibn ‘Arabi, the great 13th century scholar and mystic of Murcia, Al-Andalus. (I was working on the Spanish to English; it has already been translated from Arabic to Spanish).

  Something about translating a person’s words immediately makes me feel their presence. Sometimes it happens when reading their work, but often writers have been so edited, or were writing in such a detached way, that their essence doesn’t come across well at all. But translating a classical manuscript has a different feeling to it. It’s difficult, clumsy; often you feel you are blundering around in the dark.

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

  And out of the dark loom figures. I’m not sure if it is the spirit of the writer, or some other being come to help you work it out. But when I turned off the computer at 1.30 am, and went to pray before bed, there were people sitting on the sofa. They had their hands on their knees. I would say they were probably men, though gender didn’t have anything to do with it. They were aware of me. One of them, I felt, could have been Ibn ‘Arabi, summoned to help put me on track with this mind-numbingly difficult translation.

  It’s happened a few times recently, particularly during Ramadan, when I was often up in the night at strange hours praying. You might say it was a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. I’ve slept much less and still not hallucinated, and in any case, there was nothing visual there – which is precisely what answered my question about imagination.

  There is a vision in the head, and a vision in the heart. Rarely do the twain meet – at least in the daytime, when there is enough light to distract the eyes of the head and so much activity for it to be getting on with. The heart’s vision usually takes a back seat – unless you make an effort to be reminded of it, or you are of a highly intuitive nature (in which case it can be paralysing).

  At night, when this intuitive state returns to many of us, especially children, those entities that we are too busy to notice in the daytime start to demand our attention. (You might want to call them energies, if that takes away the creepiness factor for you.) 

  But a while ago I realised that addressing my children’s fears directly, not by declaring those entities as non-existent but by calmly accepting their perception of them and offering them some practical way to deal with them, helps them cope with their fears without shutting off their heart’s vision. So we blow raspberries at monsters, shoo them out by shaking towels, make lots of noise, tell them to go home, sing songs loudly about how we’ll chop them up and put them in a peppery soup, squirt water at them, close curtains and light nightlights, sweep dusty neglected underbeds and air out stuffy wardrobes and bathrooms.

  The head doesn’t want to accept the possibility of these entities existing, partly because it doesn’t want the competition of the heart’s vision (heads are territorial like that), and partly because it just doesn’t have any way of dealing with it – which really is terrifying. How does the rational mind come up with a solution for an intuitive problem?

  You have to revert to play to find the solution. You have to go back into the child’s space of anything being possibly anything else to come up with the next page of the story, the next event. Sometimes it will seem quite crazy. Other times there will be so much wisdom to it your jaw will drop at your child’s perspicacity. 

  Cavegirl, who is now 3, remarked to me the other day, while I was on the computer sending emails, “Mummy, wake up!” I replied, “I am awake!” to which she said, “No. You’re asleep”.

  A commentary of technology’s habit of disconnecting us from other people aside, that showed me how well her heart vision was integrated with her head vision – as, I suppose, all children’s must be, up to a certain age. She described me as she saw me – yet she knew I was not literally asleep, because I was sitting up in a chair, typing. But I may as well have been. My heart-light was switched off, and only head activity remained. I was, to her, in a different world, detached from the reality she perceived. I certainly wasn’t sensing the presence of night visitors then, I can tell you. 

  In story, the two visions, heart and head, converge. Head is there offering adjectives, guiding story arcs, planning ahead a little, reminding not to waffle. But heart has taken centre stage. Heart is on the stage in fact, dressed in wild batiks with a staff in hand, enthralling the page with visions that may or may not ever have been but feel real – and that is true enough.

  When fears emerge, whether your child’s or yours, story offers access to your intuitive ability to problem-solve in the non-physical realm, where there certainly are crocodiles under your bed – or something that only the word ‘crocodiles’ can adequately describe. Write the crocodiles a letter to tell them to go away (politely – you don’t want to get them annoyed). Sing them a song, or play a tune on a penny whistle, à la the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and lead them out the front door (locking it shut afterwards). Send in a team of pirhanas to devour them…I don’t know, they’re your crocodiles, you make it up. (Add them in the comments when they seem to work!)

  Most of the time, it makes you laugh to play out these solutions, which itself acts as a detergent to fear. And the side-effect of getting rid of a crocodile infestation is appreciating those protectors, teachers, guards who appear when you need them. 

  Why is it always at night? Because that’s when the stories emerge from their dens.

And the Prize for the Narrowest Mind Goes To…

That great genius for inter-religious tolerance, Richard Dawkins, has finally come out and tweeted it: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

 

Apart from the obvious steps that will surely ensue, the official banning of Islam in all European nations for being counter to human development, the jetting of all outlaw Muslims to the moon (while the far right complains that it was their tax money that built them the interstellar asylum centre), and the honouring of this day in history as Democracy Day, I have a few points I’d like to make to Signeur Dawkins.

 

Firstly, how much would he expect to have achieved if his nation was the colonised, rather than the colonising? (Repeat argument ad infinitum regarding various Muslim countries and various, in some cases nearly incessant, occupations).

 

Secondly, what kind of achievements was he hoping we’d make? The invention of the atom bomb? For all the ‘achievements’ of the non-Muslim world (and that is about as laughably reductive a label as ‘the Muslim world’ is), it has succeeded in destroying more of our natural resources in 100 years than in the entire history of humankind, with no sign of that rate slowing. Nice work.

 

Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Alfred Nobel, chilling.

Thirdly, what does a Nobel Prize actually constitute? Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 and celebrated it by instigating drone strikes on Pakistan. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres won it in 1994 for their efforts in establishing peace in the Middle East; not sure we saw much of that. Nelson Mandela had to share his in 1993 with the then South African president Frederik W. de Klerk, who sure as hell didn’t have to suffer as much for ending apartheid as Mandela did (and who only seemed to allow it because it was interfering with the country’s economy). How much are Nobel prizes genuine reflections of truly marvellous work, rather than simply reflections of what people want to see?

 

Come to think of it, the number of women who have received Nobel Prizes are markedly low, too. Could it be that – don’t take this the wrong way – they aren’t up to much either? Did womankind peak in the Middle Ages, as well?

 

I am frankly astonished that anyone widely considered to be intelligent could judge people’s ‘achievements’ in such grotesquely blunt terms as how many prizes they win. The logical next step is to judge them for how many letters after their names they have, how much money they earn, how many followers on Twitter they have. Could it be that this is the criteria by why Richard Dawkin’s own achievements are judged?

 

He might as well ask how many Far Eastern countries they have chemically defoliated/nuked, how many massively polluting conglomerate companies they run, how many politicians kowtow to their industries, how many diseases they cure whilst a dozen super-resistant ones emerge, how many useless theories they come up with, how many tons of plastic junk they have to ship to other countries to bury each year, how obese their population is, or how mentally ill they are. If any of these things are a measure of a given society’s value, then the West wins first prize for Unflinching Devotion to the Cause of Humanity’s Destruction.

 

Regardless of the fact that Muslims are not immune to the odd Nobel (or indeed any of the bozo-like behaviour cited above), I am deeply suspicious of any argument that seems to judge the worth of a people’s existence by the sort of thing one might put on a CV to impress a future employer. If that is all you have achieved, you have really achieved very little.

 

The 'achievement' involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a badger with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

The ‘achievement’ involved in this family crest was apparently subduing a small zoo with nothing more than a couple of ostrich feathers.

You might have written bestsellers, but do you friends trust you? You might have a PhD but do your children hate you? You might have millions of fans but are you incapable of having a loving relationship? You might earn a ton of money, but is it all sitting in high-interest accounts or shares in unethical mining or arms companies, while the people around you are eating tinned dog food? You might have earned the praise and admiration of your peers, but does the old lady at the Post Office secretly call you ‘that pompous, rude git who swans about like he owns the place and couldn’t tell a joke if it bit him in the arse’?

 

Achievement has about as much to do with what looks good on paper as beauty has to do with plastic surgery. What have Muslims contributed in the last 500 years or so? Many millions of tiny acts of kindness that no newspaper would bother printing and no organisation would bother stumping up the cash for an awards ceremony to celebrate.

 

Dealing with your own self – though most Muslims certainly don’t spend a whole lot of time doing that – is a far more difficult task than going to university, getting a job, and rising up the career ladder, gathering accolades on the way. You can employ all sorts of underhanded methods in the latter, but in the former, only ruthless self-accounting and discipline will work – and that doesn’t get you any certificate.

 

Humility, disinterested acts of kindness, generosity, service to others, being the kind of everyday hero that doesn’t demand a medal – these acts are elevated in Islam to the rank of achievement, far more than winning a battle or having your critics pat you on the back for that paper you just published.

The higher you climb in this world, the further you have to fall. In contrast, practising non-attachment to the world whilst caring for it is surely the greatest challenge humanity faces.

 

Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can't say it's got a stable real estate value

Living on a floating island of human debris certainly keeps all the undesirables away, though I can’t say it’s got a stable real estate value

Dawkin’s statement rings so loudly with hubris that surely it is only a matter of time before everyone but the far right (who will have to build a high-security settlement on one of those floating islands of plastic in the Atlantic, in order to be free from all these underachieving Muslims and that horribly contagious plague, Shariah law) begins to see through the flimsy smokescreen that worldly success presents.

 

Now wouldn’t that be an achievement?

MIrrors Have Moved Up In The World

sun_reflection_in_water

Once
I don’t know when,
mirrors were
still pools of water
and the faces in them
downcast, eyes glowing
in reflected light.
When we first learned
how we looked
it was as
thinkers, mourners,
cradlers of sleepy
children. In this
humbled curve
we discovered our
own surprised selves
in unexpected
ponds, saw there
our naked souls.

Now mirrors have
moved up in the world.
We peer in, eye to eye,
shoulders back, a photo
booth’s rectangular frame.
We preen our feathers
and imagine how
the world must meet us.
This reflection is hard
as ice, as diamond;
no curious fingertip
can turn the surface
to soup or circles
or drop in a shell
to listen for its depth.
The image returns
impassively and we
cannot wet our hands in it
or take a piece in palm
to scrutinise
and scatter.

Some empowerment
program’s elevated
mirrors to Wall Status.
Now they’re immune
to dirty feet,
to fishing nets
and worn-out rags.
Whatever tears
or snarls they witness
there’s no change
in temperature.
Folds of shawls
no longer hang towards
but drop down
shamefully.
To bow our heads
we lose sight
of this vision.
In steel the mirrors
have become
our equals.

The Night A Thief Showed Me Freedom

We were at a restaurant in Soho, one of those brightly-lit places with stylish wallpaper that lures designers and their ilk into this grimy crease on London’s streetmap, in which creep junkies, tourists in sunhats, reckless rickshaw riders, jazz joints and telephone boxes so filthy they make you clutch your mobile like a prayer book.

Image

S and I had been friends back in sixth form; she was about the only person I’d stayed in touch with since then, and had later moved to London herself to work. There is always something slightly giddy about meeting up with old friends. Each successive year intensifies the conversation you eventually have, compressing the changes into a solid mass, studded with events.

For my part (I’ll let her tell her own), I’d had my second child, got divorced, and fallen in love. See what I mean? So much upheaval and transformation – both painful and wonderful – condensed into one sentence. What is even more amazing is that after those potent little phrases pop out, with the shock and laughter that ensue, it feels like you can talk about anything, fluidly, easily. The stopper is wrenched off and the most intimate information pours out.

So engaged we must have been in our conversation that when it came to pay the bill, and I discovered a dusty corner where my bag should have been – right beneath my feet – I realised that it could have been an hour before that a thief had sneaked in the door and somehow (“Perhaps they used a crutch”, the policeman suggested afterwards) made off with my shoulder bag. It was a busy night. Soho is like that. The consolation, at the time, was that the restaurant owner said she’d let us off the bill.

We walked S’s bike, ticking, through the throngs of people getting progressively more smashed until we found a police station – checking the bins, fruitlessly, along the way, in case the thief had dumped the important stuff (i.e. my passport).

The police station was just closing up as we arrived, but an earnest, shortish man in uniform led us down to the basement where the graveyard shift was coming to life in order to make the report. Oh, that basement. If the theft alone wasn’t enough to deter me from visiting Soho again at night, the photos of criminals papering the walls along with details of what they were wanted for (dangerous dogs, rape, drug dealing, arson, assault, prostitution, mugging…) certainly would.

But like the dramas of the recent past that we had just been pondering over our wild mushroom risottos, this little drama, in comparison, was quite hilariously small. The immediacy of it brought our patience and good humour out in their most rarified forms. We must have sat for nearly an hour in that bunker of criminal terrors, listening to the amiable banter of the other policemen and being offered berry-flavoured tea, before strolling out – me significantly less encumbered – into the crisp night air.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

I remember it as being a summer night, but logically it must have been sometime in April. Yet the sense of lightness was pervasive and strong. It spread to my feet, which still had their shoes on; to my hands, which were now freed to swing about instead of anxiously clutching at a bag full of important documents; to my head, mercifully still not processing all the boring bureaucratic details of getting an emergency passport in the two days I had before my flight back to Spain.

In a strange sort of way, moments like these make me happy to be unfortunate. Crises are never so critical when you take away the stress of thinking about them. It’s just another situation that need to be dealt with, like mopping up a spilt juice or lump of porridge thrown by a toddler exercising her triceps.

Generosity surfaces when a friend is in trouble, too. I borrowed S’s phone to call ahead, and she lent me her Oyster card with just enough on it to get where I needed to go. (Thankyou S!) Then a friend of a friend, who I’d never met, came to meet me at the Tube station. I suppose it was hard to mistake the one person getting off the train without any personal belongings.

What made it all the more blissful was arriving at a Sufi gathering among delightful people, singing and drinking tea and eating Turkish delight into the wee hours. I had sailed from central London to the outskirts, to a dark recess of Tottenham, constantly amazed at how little I had to worry about now that everything had gone. What else could anyone take?

That was when I realised how much of a strain it is having objects, possessions, and especially gadgets, most of which are supposedly meant to make life easier.

How much more stressful is life when you are constantly having to check beeping machines dangling from your person? Or clutching at bags containing collections of mainly useless things in case someone makes off with them, wanting the two or three useful bits and throwing the rest away? How much grief is spared when those scenarios are not imaginatively played out, recurrently, like scenes from a bad, made-for-TV film in which the actors aren’t getting paid? (See this previous post for more on that.)

And once I was reunited with my kids a few days later, my secondary realisation was that I spent a lot of my time with them in much the same way as I had been attending to my supposedly helpful possessions. “Oh, my son just beeped” – “I think she’s running out of batteries, better get home and put her on charge” – “WHERE ARE MY – oh, there they are” etc. etc.

There is so much unnecessary anxiety surrounding possession. Once you bust the notion that anything is actually yours in the first place – especially a human being – then the issue becomes more one of maintenance. There are steps needed to be taken to get from situation A (passport stolen/kitchen window broken/someone on my car seat) to situation B (emergency passport is reissued/kitchen window is fixed/car seat is clean). It ends up getting done at some point. The steps involved aren’t that painful, really.

The stress in the middle comes from believing that something is YOUR PROPERTY, and therefore you should get enraged or upset when something happens to it. If, instead of freaking out when ‘something goes wrong’, you pause and consider that nobody is dead (unless they actually are – in which case there’s not much you can do anyway), and everything passes, including horrible family moments involving swearwords, spitting, hitting, excluding, crying, breaking toys, slamming doors and all the rest, then it is easier to feel free.

It is genuinely possible to be a mother and shrug your shoulders when someone has a minor wound, and even to discipline the offending child while remaining calm and practical. I have seen it happen. It sounds out of this world, but it is true.

My usual reaction, on the other hand, is to yell. Or groan. But – and here’s where the patient, non-attached mother has a better time of it – if you can pause and observe dispassionately, is having a hissy fit really going to achieve anything? Generally it does little more than cause headaches, give me a sore throat, deepen frown lines, hurt little ears and send kids into a sulk.

More to the point, though, what is causing that volcanic feeling in the first place? POSSESSION. IT’S MINE. In the case of having a mum-fit, THE FAMILY AMBIENCE IS MINE. I have envisaged it, read dozens of parenting books, and spent years cultivating it. Therefore, IT IS MINE. When it all goes pear-shaped, something has been stolen from me. I have lost control. The image of a perfect family that I have been dreaming of is gone, and now I am clutching after it as if it were a phantom purse, recently snatched by a serial scumbag.

As confessionals go, this might not be so enjoyable to read – especially if you hear yourself shrieking at your kids frequently, or saying incriminating thing your parents used to say to you. The good news is this: THERE IS FREEDOM AT THE OTHER END OF THE CRISIS.

When our baggage is too heavy, we instinctively want to rid ourselves of it – and sometimes it’ll break a few greenhouse windows as it goes down. But there is lightness, too, and that is the important thing. Detaching yourself from the concepts of who or how your kids (or you) should be creates room in your being for a lot of joy. That makes for a much more beautiful experience of parenthood, and of life.

In short, travel light. It’s not worth paying the lockers along the way.

The Heart Pools

I’ve recently started a course led by two friends about medicinal herbs and plants. We study anatomy, drink teas, meditate and listen to trees. That might sound like a holiday (and it is pleasurable enough to make it seem so). But the truth is that it’s changing my life.

Yesterday’s focus was on the heart and lungs. After a huge download on the anatomy of these organs and the way they work, the subtler aspects of the heart were discussed – in a way I had never heard before. The word ‘heart’ has become a signifier for all that is mawkish and silly in our society. Spanish songs aren’t complete without a few corazones, but in English, just mentioning the word, especially with ‘my’ before it, usually triggers a wave of cynical responses even before the sentence is complete.

And yet the subtle action of the heart is quite tangible and even documentable. Western science was only discovered in the 1980s that the heart is also an endocrinal gland: it produces and secretes hormones and neurotransmitters, particularly noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as oxytocin – the love hormone or bonding hormone, released in large quantities at orgasm, when in love, and during and after a natural labour.

Even more fascinating is the electromagnetic function of the heart. There are known to be 40,000 neurones in the heart; together with the intestines it forms one of the largest ‘brains’ in the body, after the brain itself. The heart of a foetus actually begins beating before the brain is sufficiently developed to send it the message to do so; one of the first functions of the brain in the womb is to regulate the heartbeat.

The heart sends messages to the brain by many means, hormonal, chemical, electrical and so on, not just about blood pressure but also about our feelings, sadness, joy, love, pain.

There is an electromagnetic field generated by any organ with neuronal activity. This is what women with flowers in their hair and crystals in their pockets (just check out my prejudices!) might call an aura. Every living entity has one of these fields. With greater awareness of what is happening in this field, it can be expanded to overlap with the field surrounding another living entity, whether it be a person or animal or plant. This is when communication takes place. The words are after-effects.

One of the ways to effect this greater awareness is through the breathing practice pranayama, while visualising the air coming in and out of the heart. This is really powerful. Suddenly it seems that the heart has a mouth and can breathe and therefore talk. It is a living entity its own right.

To complete this sense of expansion and warmth, it is necessary only to remember a time when you felt very thankful, and a time when you felt great love and tenderness. It is like watching a plant grow rapidly before your eyes and open its petals, like in a David Attenborough documentary on your own being.

This pool of warmth and tenderness, when it notices another pool that is in pain, immediately rushes to make contact with it. There’s no sense of ‘ooh look at me, all compassionate like’. The heart pools are compassion in action, without the brain to stick price tags on it.

All of this is probably making a lot of sense to you, dear readers. Everyone who has ever been in love or created a work of art or lost a dear friend or family member knows there is a capacity for feeling in the heart that cannot compare to the cold, tickety calculations happening in the brain – no matter how useful these might also be.  

But whether you decide to keep the seat of your sense of being up there among the mechanisms of thought and analysis, or down here in the centre of your body, makes a huge difference to the way you approach the world.

Remaining in the head enables us to make justifications for behaviour that destroys other people’s worlds or harms the environment. There is always seemingly good reason. Remaining in the heart, however, makes it impossible to witness any suffering without wanting to do something to alleviate it – especially when the cause of the suffering is ourselves.

This is where we come back to these split opinions about the heart.

I get a strong sense that there are two ‘Wests’: the corporate West, and the human West. The corporate West has no heart. It exists entirely in the sphere of analysis and justification. We can make more money doing something a particular way, and thus make life easier and more comfortable and apparently happier doing it, so we can justify the suffering of sweatshop labourers, child miners, displaced indigenous peoples, and invaded oil-rich countries, or the plunder and poisoning of natural resources in order to do it.

Then there is the human West. (That’s you, and me.) If we were to see this suffering first-hand, there’s no way we would accept it. Our hearts would break. Yet the distance between us and them, combined with the primping effect of the corporate West, make the justifications seem worthwhile. Of course you’d say yes to a gadget or product that made your life easier, prettier, nicer-smelling, or more comfortable, if you didn’t know what kind of chaos its production entailed.

The problem is that swaddling our hearts against the horror of what our actions as a society end up doing to the rest of the world is also suffocating. It feels unnatural not to witness any pain or discomfort. When the aged or disabled are sent to care homes, we forget they exist and expect everyone to be young and fit and gorgeous. When beggars are rounded up by police and moved on, we forget what poverty looks like. When doctors can reassure you that disease is not the end of the world, we forget that any one of us could die at any moment, forgetting also to treat every drop of life as a gift. All of this allows us to get on with our lives more comfortably, and yet our hearts are being numbed in the process.

To react to this slow, icy death, we come up with all sorts of hairbrained methods to reactivate our hearts. We go in for wildy passionate, toxic love affairs that end up hurting us. We flirt with danger in the form of tobacco, drugs, alcohol. We jump out of airplanes with backpacks and goggles on. Anything to make us feel alive again, to feel that leap in our chests, the thud of adrenaline or the buzz of dopamine.

And then love itself is marketed in so many ways. Films posit love as the ultimate trophy, the happy ending that won’t dissolve into acrimony a few years later. Love as a commodity is mawkish and icky. The internet is rife with photos of kittens, in baskets, with bows on, looking perplexedly at the camera in sailor suits…in the absence of an orphaned child living in a train station, the most extraordinarily silly things pass as heart-rending.

There is an ultimate sense to things. Sometimes it takes age or experience or distance covered to have any perspective on them, but there is a sense there, overall. Even disease could be seen as an expression of our underlying need to know what death is in order to be able to get back to the present moment, to get back to the centre of our being, to feel the jolt of life pumping away inside our bodies and remember to appreciate it instead of getting swamped with worry and the frantic accumulation of things.

Am I just getting old?

If getting old means seeing the small in the large and the large in the small, then perhaps I won’t mind the discomforts.

Creativity and the Dervish

I’ve been quiet lately on this blog, in fact ever since being Freshly Pressed (rather a nice feeling, a bit like being squashed through a mangle – perhaps this explains my new juicing craze). But it’s been an interesting hiatus.

I finally got round to reading Stephen Pressfield‘s fantastically insightful ‘The War of Art’, a book destined for people who have always nursed a dream to do some life-defining act of creativity, or make a longed-for enterprise a reality, or take on a spiritual practice – in short, anything that leads the soul from a lower state to a higher one – and yet who consistently find ways to sabotage their own fulfilment. Why, you ask? Because of Private Enemy Number One: Resistance.

Resistance, Pressfield declares, is that part of you that makes up excuses for not doing whatever activity it is that will satisfy the soul’s longing: ‘I’m not ready yet’, ‘I just need to sort out a few things first’, ‘I need to learn more’, ‘People will laugh at me for trying,’ ‘It’ll probably be rubbish’, ‘I have so many other interests, too’, and ‘Just one more click on YouTube’. (The Internet is Resitance’s evil twin sibling.)

Image

(Copyright M Whiteman, 2012)

Looking around my house, I have discovered that it is in fact a monument to my own Resistance. Instead of finishing the immensely personal novel that I have been trailing around behind me like a liferaft on a rope for the last ten years, I have made ragdolls, clothes for ragdolls, patchwork quilts, clothes for myself and the Cavekids, toy tomatoes out of felt, an unfinished wooden kitchen, an unfinished wooden doll’s house, pillows and blankets for said doll’s house, a panoply of cardboard houses and cars, and umpteen origami animals, paper darts, glue paintings of dried flowers, pipe cleaner people and animals. Even the poems, short stories, articles, and paintings I produce ad hoc are a kind of distraction from the real oeuvre I need to be doing. (Let’s not even mention the blog…)

The core message of the War of Art is that the more you fear doing something, the more you shy away from doing it and find something more pleasant or immediately gratifying to do, the more important it is to your souls’ evolution.

The similarity to Sufism’s call to beware of the nafs (lower self, ego) while on the path of God-consciousness is striking. Pressfield’s theory is based on Jung’s concept of the ego as being a tiny dot in a much larger sphere of consciousness called the Self, which is not confined to the individual but in fact is a part of the collective consciousness. This Self derives its existence from Divine ground.

Image

(Copyright Pmisak, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

The ego doesn’t like the Self; its vastness makes it feel threatened and small, so the ego reacts by attacking our desire to transcend it, belittling our efforts, convincing us that it is hopeless or stupid to do so, and justifying itself with a catalogue of perfectly rational proofs why.

However, if the soul’s evolution depends upon traversing a path that is sometimes actually torture to carry out, then it becomes clear that there is not always just one path that will yield fruits for the hungering soul. A mother with small children who yearns to complete an artistic odyssey is one example. (Hello!)

Here’s is where it starts getting complicated. Your children aren’t part of your ego. They are an astonishing, miraculous, and frequently insanely testing part of your experience on this planet. We don’t NEED an artistic odyssey to give us this arduous voyage of self-discovery; we have one right here in front of us. It keeps us up all night screaming with teething pain, or pukes all over your nice dress when you are about to go out, or tells you that it doesn’t like the cool recycled cardboard castle you’ve just spent hours constructing for it. Your patience, resolve, ingenuity, wisdom and wits are challenged on a daily basis. Why bother looking for ANOTHER vehicle that will do the same thing on a creative or entrepreneurial level?

The answer, I believe, lies in the experience of the creative process. Opening the floodgates of creativity takes you out of the tiny, cramped niche that your ego sits in and takes you out into the wide open plains of the Self. Insights emerge naturally, as though you are simply a bird flying over a landscape, spotting a fish in a river below.
Image

(Copyright George Burba, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

This flight is something that every single human being needs – and needs frequently. Once you have a taste for it, you develop a thirst that will see you pushing yourself to your absolute limits of tiredness to return there. How do we get to that state, that supra-individual consciousness? I reckon there are four ways to effect it: spiritually-intended rituals (prayer, meditation), creative expression, orgasm, and so-called mind-expanding drugs.

Let’s think about it for a minute. In a society where the first of these four has all but been banished by consumerist fetishism and rabidly anti-traditional rhetoric, what is left to us? We seek that enlivening expansion in music, in dance, in sex, in drugs. But in each of those phases, another element is added, another bargaining chip for the ego that wants to sabotage the beauty and simplicity of that experience, until in the last one the unavoidable fact of physical addiction and possible destruction comes into play.

There is no avoiding our need for leaping beyond the bounds of our tiny minds and feeling united with all beings, for having a taste of Being itself. My experience of creative writing really is like gliding through in a current of feelings, images, ideas and meanings that seem to come from way beyond oneself. Writing a story feels like teasing it out of the ether and into materiality, through no other talent of your own than some kind of literary mediumship.

But this is a world that needs guides, that requires discipline. Shamans don’t learn their art by a desultory glance at Wikipedia. Dervishes don’t become dervishes by wearing the latest trend in woollen robes. Great artists, those whose egos are eclipsed by the light they transmit from this expansive realm, don’t become great by faffing about on Facebook all day. We live in a society that is so driven by the need to keep people spending, to keep people consuming, to keep people insecure enough to feel they need some new product, that fighting against this tide is in itself a herculean task.

That is why it is so worthwhile. That is why creativity is a poke in the eye for the crushingly hollow culture of shopping and consumption that so strangles us. That is why, even when there are a million and one necessities tearing my attention in all directions, I will stay up late whenever I can and leave the dishes for the morning, to write, to dream, to fly.

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(Copyright Krishgun01, Stock Free Photos / Dreamstime Stock Photos)

N.B. I just watched John Cleese’s excellent talk on creativity and entering the playful, open state of mind necessary for it – it’s well worth a watch.

The Insanity of Blame

The life sentences of Farzana and Iftikar Ahmed for the murder of their daughter Shafilea, reported today on the BBC, because her ‘westernised ways’ (i.e. resistance to a forced marriage in Pakistan) were bringing shame on their family, has revealed to me once again how very insane the Muslim world can be sometimes.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19068490

I say ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Islamic’, because – and I’m sorry if it sounds obvious – just because a person is Muslim doesn’t make them a torch-bearer for the religion of their forefathers. The very first thing that the Prophet Muhammad (s.) did as a lawmaker was to forbid the killing of baby girls, which was a common practice at the time. How much difference is there between burying your baby daughter alive in the sand, and suffocating her to death with a plastic bag – in front of your four other children?

The prevailing attitude in Arabian society at the advent of Islam was what is known in Islamic history as the Jahiliya, generally translated as the Time of Ignorance. But there are always great subtleties in a root-system language such as Arabic; the word Jahiliyah has nuances of recklessness, foolishess, impetuousity and barbarism. It refers to a state of intense internecine warfare that would see 20,000 people slaughtered over the course of decades because someone from one tribe had killed a goat belonging to someone from another tribe.

Introducing values like compassion and mercy, forgiving rather than exacting blood money, even kissing one’s own children were not taken to kindly by many 8th century Meccans. A Bedouin man once saw Muhammad kiss one of his children fondly and seemed appalled by it. When Muhammad asked him what was the matter, he relied “I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them”. Muhammad replied, “He who does not show mercy is not shown mercy.”

So the buttons that are pressed by a so-called ‘honour killing’ like that of Shafilea Ahmed reach deep into a Muslim’s conscience. “The best of you is he who is kindest to his family” is another of Muhammad’s most well-loved sayings. These events, like all acts of barbarity or terror, remind us that habit maketh not the man – or in our case, hijab and beard maketh not the pious Muslim. As Hayley Meachin of the British Association of Social Workers told The Huffington Post UK: “Shafilea Ahmed was killed because her parents were bullies and murderers.

But we are by no means the only people to count among their numbers vile, mentally unsound, vicious people. This Jahiliyah mentality is not only a subordination of the individual to the integrity of their tribe, but also at a very elemental level a brutal game of tit-for-tat. You make me suffer (because you aren’t living up to my expectations and people are thinking badly of me), therefore I will make you suffer too.

As my parents pointed out while we were watching the news footage, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his Baptist minister father for supposedly promoting immorality, and the creator of the Bembo font (typography geeks will get it) struck his son-in-law over the head with a metal bar and was executed for his crime. The victims of the Columbine school shoot-out, or any of the American Psycho-type killings we’ve seen in recent years, were not even targeted for their supposed immorality, but just for being in the way of a video game played out with real-live ammunition.

In a subtler way, we all do a bit of this Jahiliyah business. In his incredibly insightful book Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg describes emotional emancipation – i.e. being freed from the idea that other people are the cause of your feelings. This works both ways: if someone does something you perceive to be hurtful, you blame them (thus shackling you to a victim mentality). If someone does something you perceive to be pleasing, you warm to them (thus becoming dependent on their talent for feeding your insecurities).

In the former case, what tends to happen – even among highly intelligent, otherwise sane people – is that they act out their suffering on the one they believe to have caused it. You made me suffer, so I’ll make you suffer back. You kill my goat, so I’ll kill yours. It might seem that you are now even, but in fact you create a cycle of resentment and vindictiveness that may never end. Whole families can be embittered by this blaming-hurting dynamic.

As a parent, you can see this happening with small children very clearly. He stole my toy, so I bashed him over the head. Does this playground game ever end there? The Jahiliyah is alive and well, buried in the subconscious attitudes of every single flippin’ human being on the planet. The desire to get our own back is so intense that it can even cause a parent to kill their own child – then lie to police and press for nine years and play the innocent victims.

Do I even need to say it? This isn’t Islam; it’s insanity. And nobody is immune until they investigate the roots of their suffering instead of casting the first stone. As a wise Sufi teacher once told a man who came to him complaining about his wife, “Your wife’s not the problem: you’re the problem.”

For everyone’s sake, we need to be the change, not the problem.