The Mother With No Mind

The angle he sees me at
makes me all triangles
jawbone, earlobe, nose
elbows everywhere

A table is an overhanging rock
on a wind-bitten mountain path
the room a cave cathedral
with electric stalactites
the stairs a Giant’s Causeway
our diminutive patio is a
basketball court, zones marked by
patches of cement
dogs are like elephants
except the neighbour’s pug
which is more like a chaise longue
that snores
children are Titans
and we adults are mobile skyscrapers
with the power to pick him up
and stride vast distances
yet he is not daunted
by his size. His reality is not
that he is 8 months small but
that we are infinitessimally tiny
and he is merely
one degree tinier

*

Writing with anything
on anything –
stubby felt tip in
older son’s school book –
grabbed at any time –
5.30 am after a night of
insomnia induced by
unidentifiable itching
(a flea, or incipient allergy to lentils,
or too much coffee and thrillers)
I wonder if this
mothering life
is what they call
No-Mind?
Get up – don’t think! –
set the mechanisms of family in motion
food made, mouths opening,
“WASH YOUR HANDS!”
clean dishes, break up fisticuffs,
hang out laundry
(there is ALWAYS laundry)
continue thus until the bedtime story
is garbled as mouth loses contact
with brain and I crash out anywhere,
on anything –
is this surfing the crest of ego,
always slipping just out of its sticky reach?
It is khidmah, for sure,
although maybe my complaining
nullifies its bounties, or am I just
not taking time to witness them?

*

He sleeps on my lap now.
Here are the gifts: glossy curls
forming at the back of his head;
his hand laid flat on my belly
fingers kneading as he dreams;
his warm velour’d weight on me
and the breathing
deep and restful
even if I am not.

Three Translucent Fans

It might seem, from the digital distance of the internet, that the Cave has been pretty quiet of late. From this side of the screen, however, it’s been a time of intense internal activity, which I have cunningly disguised as laziness.

Various family crises, housing disasters, veterinary emergencies, bureaucratic worries and work woes combined into a whirling maelstrom of angst, which left me fairly convinced that if I’d gone to a doctor I would have been put on some strong medication. Thank God I had no health insurance and therefore didn’t have the choice.

 Big dog, big vet bills.

Thus a month of near-lunacy culminated in a trip up to Alqueria de Los Rosales, a conference centre complete with mosque (designed by my very own padre) and lodgings in a remote, starkly beautiful corner of the Granada province. The attraction was a retreat organised by my favourite fellow Cavepeople, Rumi’s Cave. Sheikh Babikir and Imam ‘Abdul-Lateef Finch were there to blast gibbering wrecks like myself back into shiny shape again through the medium of dhikr. By the time I left I felt free again, impervious to fear and stress; I felt like a ghoul whose hand had been constantly clutching at my throat had now been banished back to the underworld.

‘Adhkurni fa-adhkurkum’, so the Qur’an tells us: ‘Remember Me and I will remember you’. Pretty straightforward it would seem. It’s the antithesis of the current climate of ultra-distractability; you don’t need me to start listing websites – you know the prime culprits. Why are we suckers for it, when FB does such spectacularly insensitive acts as deliberately manipulating the positive or negative content of nearly 700,000 users’ newsfeeds in an experiment to see if they would post more negative or positive posts?

We citizens of the Internetic Republic are dimly aware of the way in which Flabberbook uses our self-created profiles to ‘teach’ advertisers how to market to us better, yet the entertainment value of a Friskies advert in which an older cat introduces the new kitten to the bad monster ‘Vac-cuum’ blots out our outrage, and we’re back to skimming through endless amounts of other peoples’ suggestions (some of which are so good that we keep going back again in the hopes of more). Horror at some story about kids in a refugee camp is swiftly replaced by cooing over a friend’s new baby. The margins of our emotional experience narrow; the world is siphoned into a stream of information that seems ever blander; the highs and lows are cycled through with an ever increasing numbness.

So remembrance – dhikr – works as a kind of unseen Fairy liquid on the congealed fat of our consciousness, biting through it to the clear Pyrex of our souls with unbeatable efficiency (do one get 70,000 rewards free!). You could term it mindfulness, too; either way you are retreating from the illusion on the periphery – of past and future, out there on the antipodes of our horizons – to the centre of the circle, to the present, to reality, that mind-bendingly beautiful Divine space.

Just before leaving for the Rumi’s Retreat, a friend, on hearing for the nth time my sorrows, simply said: ‘It’s just a reminder to stay present in your heart.’ A very Sufi statement one might say, or a New Age one; but labels don’t do justice to the sense of this approach. For a lot of us, it’s easier said than done, though. ‘How do I go back into my heart?!’ the mind wails, banging on the bars of the cage it built for itself. But it isn’t something that can be done mentally. Jabbering thoughts have to stop for a while for you to see that you don’t simply disappear off the map when you stop thinking, as Descartes must have imagined we did. 

Once you quiet the white noise of worry (or nostalgia, or mulling over negative thoughts, or just chattering away to yourself after having a coffee like my brain does), there’s the most exquisite expansiveness. There’s peace. There doesn’t have to be someone taking a selfie of them feeling peaceful – it’s just the peace, that’s all there is.

Poised on the brink of something big.

Poised on the brink of something big.

 

I was reminded of this deep, oceanic calm, and the phenomenally creative potential within in, when facilitating a poetry workshop at the Rumi’s retreat, together with Abbas Zahedi, head honcho of Rumi’s Cave in North London. There is so much to be said about literary form, information I don’t retain well and find myself itching to subvert at the next opportunity. Most classes that ‘teach’ poetry get stuck straight into spondees before you can say ‘iambic pentametre’.

But before the writing begins, there is a kind of pre-poetry that has to be found. It’s the same vast, unpredictable inner space that dhikr generates, that you experience in dreams, that becomes plain in meditation or prayer (at least, when you don’t have your kids hanging off you while you’re trying to pray). You don’t get there by memorising techniques or following arbitrary rules: every person has their own shortcut there, and they need to find their own way to it. (You can find some of my favourite writing prompts to get you off the diving board and into water here.)

It is always extraordinary to see people who regard themselves as beginners, as non-writers, dip their toes into these tremendous waters within, slowly build up confidence, and finally plunge their heads under, coming up with pearls. There is nothing like it for me, and the work produced is of an amazing quality: frank, curious, observant, wise.

Any old thing can be the springboard for this process, but you need confidence to know that it doesn’t matter what you come up with. Sometimes it’ll be nothing but an old boot, a baked bean can, a broken tile, a bicycle wheel, a bone. They’re all specimens of something surprising and somehow meaningful, in the way that dreams often sound like gibberish to anyone else but to the dreamer they tell a story.

Amazing what you might find down there.

Amazing what you might find down there.

And it’s surprising how good the the formal aspect of the writing often is, quite intuitively. But even if it isn’t, no matter. You can spend weeks planning out the design of a dress, but without the raw materials you’ll never get one made. To take another analogy, all the strongest tomato plants in my garden grew by themselves out of a well-tended compost heap. Give your subconscious some oxgyen and you’ll be astounded at what will come out of it

So these three lenses of my world have folded over one another like translucent fans, each one pointing in to the same message: come back to your centre. Anxiety and social media are just significantly more irksome variations on the lesson given by dhikr: come back to your centre. The glitter and drama of the world beyond is alluring but it’s a shimmering screen which dies the moment the plug is pulled on it. Come back! Come back to your core! Nothing else will ever seem so alive again.

I’ll be doing more workshops over the summer, kindling creativity all over the UK (details on workshops to come – stay tuned for more info). If you would like me to do one at your school, community centre or other venue please email me on medinatenourwhiteman (@) gmail (dot) com. Ramadan Kareem!

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.