Friday, December 19, 2014

POEMS ~ The Half Hearing of Small Voices

Another retreat, another set of poems. This time from my recent retreat The Gods Will Offer You Chances, led by Paramananda & Mandarava at Rivendell.  I tend to write one every day, pretty much off the top of my head. Sometimes these poems indicate the effect a retreat is having upon me, sometimes they seem to come from somewhere, half heard and mistranslated. So here they are seven poems from a seven day retreat.


Tiny specks of diamonds
glittering pin pricks, perched
on the tips of grass shards
in a winter lawn, lit up
by unearthly powers
fired by lightening, solar flares
or elfin LED.


is thrown up
comes down
at some point

Probes and rockets
investigate space
data falling
in a digital rain.

Heartfelt aspirations
when they drop to earth
form impact crators
where else is the hurt?

Our pain is ours
and can't be discarded
like a boomerang
it keeps coming back.


The sun broke behind the church
over an hour ago
now its carousing
with the crowns of trees
and cloud tufts
each its own breaking beauty
that is let go of,
to make space
for the next
whilst I am still as
drowsy and grumpy now
as I was earlier.


All the days
rolling into one another
with the consistency
of pastry
roughly compacted
in a ball, or
pressed, stretched and eased out
like a glutenous dishcloth
some might say
these people look like
they're bored with life
they're indulging in childish whims
of being meaningful
of spiritual playacting
there are times
when it is all of these things
jumbled up and wrongheaded
despite appearences
everyday life is like this too
this is just a time
and the space
where the soul gets
a bit of tlc.


Here is an unlived face
eyes that function
but do not perceive
a mind operating
but does not reflect
the body is
an empty vessel
with utilitarian uses
yet his actions
are unoccupied
as though walking has lost
all sense of direction
other than foot steps

Its a face unoccupied
by terrors, by joys, by loves
by interests, by engagement
it looks out on the world
and receives nothing
via the mirror
a face not even distressed
by its predicament
too passive
to feel indifferent
all expression
is conserved, is
unredeemed by calling
this blandness
the result of hard years
of spiritual practice

This is a face
that has misconceived
the whole purpose of life.


The heart
as a muscle
flutters and flinches
its fist
when the shadow
of its metaphorical twin
is shaken into life
by the pulse of mystical blood
alchemy is snatched
as though a current of electric
zapped through and
stars expanded their spectrum
pouring down
a new colour
a shape shifting medicine
into the arteries and veins
and the heart purred
like a bedraggled familiar
being offered
pure white milk.


In the room
of the shrine
I was to
just sit with myself
listening, quietly
preparing the senses
to be more
all encompassing
in the opening and closing
opening and closing
opening and closing
of the door
half hearing a small voice
singing the opening phrase
of an unrecollected song
moarnfully mordant
think Morrissey, sung by Cohen
incanted over and over
as if the repetition
would serve up
the rest of it
this moment though
was left unresolved
when close by, a mobile vibrating
muffled beneath layers
of clothing or blankets
sounded as though
young calves
calls for their mother
were being
left unanswered

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ The Unknown Craftsman

The Unknown Craftsman  by Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman is a compendium of articles given by SoetsuYanagi over a pivotal period in Japanese culture from 1939 to 1962. Through these Yanagi became the pre-eminent figure in a revival in the appreciation and practice of Japanese folk crafts after the end of the Second World War. Eventualy he Founded the Japan Folk Craft Museum in Tokyo. Yanagi was a close friend, mentor and profound influence upon the English potter Bernard Leach, who helped translate and compile this book and provides useful background context via his introduction. Most of what we in the West understand of Japanese pottery and aesthetics, such as wabi sabi etc comes in large part from Yanagi's work.

Yanagi's route to becoming a pottery obsessive, arose as a result of his rediscovery of 16th century Korean pottery of the Yi dynasty. These simple, often crudely executed pots became for him, not just the aesthetic benchmark by which he measured all other work, but a sort of spiritual talisman for the creative attitude that a potter or artist should endeavour to cultivate. It is this latter aspect; the creative process being shadowed by spiritual practice, that I found the most inspiring thing about this book. I have read no other book that so clearly and imaginatively explains how creative work can become a spiritual practice.

Those Yi dynasty pots are in themselves the key. Technically those pots are poorly made, with misshapen bases, glazes blobby,irregular, and riddled with cracks and surface imperfections. Churned out by local craftsman with no thought to aesthetic appeal, beauty or there being perfect objects. They were simply made to meet a practical requirement. These pots became highly sought after by Japanese masters of Tea Ceremonies, often paying huge sums for them. They also become the models for Japanese versions of this pottery, where imperfections became highly valued, however self-consciously created.

Yanagi is quite dismissive about this artistic contrivance, particularly when these potters later on began to sign their pots. This declaration of creative ownership was anathema to the ideal relationship he thought one should have with what is being created. Part of the aesthetic appeal of Yi pottery is the anonymity of their creators, the men and women who made them are all unknown. There probably was no one person involved in their creation, being collectively and unselfconsciously formed. It isn't just what was created, but how they were created that makes them important. He is particularly good at teasing out that this absence of an individual creator is what makes them the epitome of beauty and the role model for Buddhist artists desiring to make their work a spiritual practice. Here are a few representative quotations:~

' The deepest beauty is suggestive of infinite potential rather than being merely explanatory.... All works of art, it may be said, are more beautiful when they suggest something beyond themselves than when they end up being merely what they are.'

'Truly beautiful objects usually contain in them some element of irregularity......Beauty dislikes being captive to perfection. That which is profound never lends itself to logical explanation;it involves endless mystery.'

'Would it not be possible to say that all beautiful work is done by the work itself? When an artist creates a work, he and the work are two different things. Only when he becomes the work itself and creates the work (in other words, when the work alone is creating the whole work) does true work become possible. Not the artist but the work should say "I am" : when this state is reached, a work of art deserving the name has been produced.'

'So long as the man who strikes the drum and drum that is struck are two different beings, true music can never be born.

'As soon as the principle becomes formalised, death approches'

I could go on and on quoting, as the book is packed full of such pithy and inspiring aphoristic sentences. Though written over sixty years ago The Unknown Craftsman, is still quite relevant to modern day artistic and Buddhist practice. Some of Yanagi's hopes for a craft revival have petered out in our high tech world of the internet. His analysis of the role of Individualism on the creative process is still particularly prescient to today's art market.

'They did not see the extraordinary in the extraordinary...They did not draw their cherished treasures out of the valuable, the expensive, the luxurious, the elaborate or the exceptional. They selected them from the plain, the natural, the homely, the simple, and the normal. They explored the uneventful, normal world for the most unusual beauty  Can anything be more uncommon than to see the uncommon in the commonplace....Most of us today have grown so commonplace that we cannot see the extraordinary save in the exceptional.'

The Unknown Craftsman is for me a very significant book, one that inevitably will roll out changes in the wake of my having read it.

Friday, December 05, 2014

FEATURE ~ The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski


Your life is your life

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

be on the watch.

there are ways out.

there is a light somewhere.

it may not be much light but

it beats the darkness.

be on the watch.

the gods will offer you chances.

know them.

take them.

you can’t beat death but

you can beat death in life, sometimes.

and the more often you learn to do it,

the more light there will be.

your life is your life.

know it while you have it.

you are marvelous

the gods wait to delight

in you.

Charles Bukowski

DIARY 127 ~ This is the time and this is the record of the time

Recent months, if not this whole year, has been challenging.  Somewhat dominated by concerns and efforts at work to contribute towards reversing Windhorse's economic woes and precarious position, and with my own aspirations to develop the artwork I do, being to some extent sidelined because of these circumstances. The balance between the personal and the practical has never been more finely or painfully drawn.

Windhorse's future is still in the balance after a year of ideas,creative solutions and optimistic efforts to turn things around. At the moment I feel a bit out of optimism and wondering if throwing in the towel gracefully would not make a cleaner break, rather than floundering on trying to survive like a half dead fish already out of the water. I sense a tide of war weariness rising particularly in myself, but also in the overall atmosphere at work. I doubt there is much energy left for many more battles. There's a sense of confidence being withdrawn, painfully reminding me of the end of my own business.

Creatively I've been focusing on my artwork, largely in terms of the process, style and finish of it. I'm still quite enthusiastic for where I can take this. I can see a gradual loosening up in its design and structure as I push into new areas, trying not to let what I've done before set false limits on what I can do now. Though it remains clearly still my work, as some of the aesthetic interests I have never appear to alter.  The evolution of my working process, is increasingly more 'lets see where it goes when I do this' than 'I have this idea lets carry it out meticulously to the bitter end'  I've become much more relaxed and confident within this evolving process and rarely get the anxiety I used to about it all 'going wrong.' Things never do 'go wrong', they just go places different to what I originally thought.  Paradoxically this is more satisfying, and enjoyable.

I've had to let go, for now, of ideas to sell my work via galleries or the web. I just don't have the personal resources of time or energy to bring these into being at the moment. This feels a more difficult thing to let go of. For not doing anything about it produces its own tension, as if I'm trying to keep hold of an aspiration that will slowly slip from my grasp if I let it. But life like my artwork, is all the better for not being held too tightly to a specific course. What life has so far thrown at me has rarely accorded to any vision I had for it. This has never been easy territory for me to be in. I've been endeavouring lately to see life itself as being a constantly evolving process too. One to an extent you must ride along with, rather than continually put yourself in opposition to, or try directing.

So if Windhorse does close, and I'm unemployed, then I''ll have to deal with whatever that leads to, both the positive and the negative consequences. I'm not saying that's going to be easy, probably not. Today I'm about to go on retreat to Rivendell, on a retreat called 'The Gods will offer you chances' a title that seems somehow prescient.  Seizing and following through on such chances when they arise seems to be more in keeping with how life is actually lived.

Friday, November 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ Everyday Aesthetics by Yuriko Saito

In one of my previous diary blogs I wrote of some reflections I'd had concerning 'the present moment' whilst I was on retreat. That there was a quality of listening with all of ones senses to become fully aware of the present moment. To be this aware is to be appreciative and absorbed in the broad sensory scenario that arises with each moment, and that this experience is primarily an aesthetic one. It is therefore a good practice to learn more about appreciating ordinary everyday occurrences just as they are, unadorned by our internal interpretive commentary.

I wanted to explore this area further, which prompted me to pick up this book Everyday Aesthetics by Yuriko Saito from the Cambridge Central Library. It has at times the feel of a book originally written as a dissertation, no stone being left unturned in its remorseless thoroughness. It appears also to have a few personal hobbyhorses of Saito's that clomp through it, sometimes creating more noise than perhaps they justify. One might say it was academic in tone, but it is actually quite an easy read, if a little plodding and tending to drag its heals a bit. For me it lost engagement and momentum early on when it went into a rather detailed discussion of 'green aesthetics'. This was to an extent illustrative, but it took the discussion away from establishing the basic principles on firmer ground, and on to the application of those principles far too soon. She never fully states what her overarching purpose is in wishing to explore everyday aesthetics, is it in search for greater meaning or purpose, or just for better more humane focused design? Due to it floating in some sort of non commital academic hinterland, it is emotionally neutral and has a curious lack of warmth and humanity.

It does present the broad range of what aesthetics of the everyday is, isn't, or might be. Establishing her major points in the first chapter, all subsequent chapters then ruminate upon them, sometimes quite flatulently. Her explanations are illustrated by well chosen examples, occasionally these do misfire entirely and one loses grasp of any finer point she's attempting to elucidate. Her own interest in design ( she teaches design theory) can take the discussion into areas that seem only tenuously connected with everyday aesthetics. She often admits as such, 'well' one is left to think 'what's your point in bringing it up then'  Unless it was purely to get her overall word count up.

These criticisms on the books structural weaknesses aside, I did gain from reading and reflecting on the content of this book. Though it was perhaps not quite what I originally thought it might be, which was mostly analytically rather than experientially based. It nevertheless brought unexpected insights into the perils and pitfalls of dwelling on aesthetics in the everyday. Her strongest arguments are around the relationship of art-based aesthetics to everyday aesthetics. Traditionally aesthetics is placed solely within an art-based framework, where it has an elevated function to point towards the sublime, to challenge our perceptions, to uplift or enlighten us. The making of Art is essentially a self-conscious activity, whilst everyday aesthetics is perceived as the antithesis of this and suffers from neglect because of it.

Attempts to broaden the boundaries of what falls within an art-based aesthetic runs the risk of turning the ordinariness of everyday aesthetics into something extraordinary and hence paradoxically making it more, not less remote. Becoming aware of everyday aesthetics is then, not about raising everything up so they become extraordinary or lowering everything down so they become ordinary, but appreciating things deeply in their essence, simply as they are. Traditional Art-based aesthetics exploits the intellectual/perceptual sensory qualities of sight and sound in order to engage us, but is neglectful or discouraging of the more earthy/embodied senses of smell or touch. Everyday aesthetics is however sensorially all inclusive. In appreciating art based aesthetics some experiential distance is required, if not demanded, whereas everyday aesthetics occupies entirely the sphere of being open to whatever is present in the immediate experience.

Being originally from Japan she uses a number of examples from her culture, which has Buddhist ideas of transience, no-self and non attachment woven through it, One aspect of the Japanese approach to aesthetics is that any object, place or ritual has its own essential character that the artist's creative role is purely to bring this out. This view, incidently, influenced the aesthetic principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain. The artist becomes less of an active innovator and more a receptive facilitator. Its not about the imposition of an artist's ego onto a material, but the sensual sensitivity they have towards what the material is or wishes to be. This concept is still widely manifested in Japanese culture, ancient and modern, through Zen gardens, wabi sabi, tea ceremonies, even packaging and product design. Tellingly she points out that what was originally an aesthetic way of looking at objects and a sense of place, became distorted for social, political ends by nationalists trying to distinguish Japan from the West, which ultimately contributed to its tyrannical behaviour in WW2.

To more closely appreciate everyday aesthetics requires conscious effort. To break out of our perceptual blinkers, as if we are putting on a different set of spectacles. The objects we use and the places we occupy all possess a functional aesthetic, in how you use them, how they are to use,stimulating subliminal or strong aesthetic responses.  The imaginative care and attention to detail present in a buildings design can be aesthetically pleasing. The way a present is packaged can be a delightful experience for those who are wrapping it and those who are unwrapping it. The way one moves, or is moved through a Japanese garden has its own spatial aesthetic of expectation and delight in the concealing and revealing of a landscape.

Obviously the lack of such imaginative care and attention also has its own aesthetic feel, in the ugly, dirty, messy, trashfilled, abandoned or barren places. Saito is particularly good at highlighting how context and culturally dependent such prejudicial aesthetic judgements can be. The differences we make between productive and unproductive land, scenic and unscenic landscapes, flashy new developments and urban wastelands. The way that old ruins were once seen as 'eyesores' until the romantic movement changed our perceptions of them. Graffiti on an art gallery wall being viewed more favourably than graffiti on a wall in the street. Whether we approve of wind farms depending on if they're placed close to home or out at sea.

These days there is often a 'tyranical aesthetic of design' which we feel is being imposed upon us, in the many things which surround, annoy and alienate us. No matter how aesthetically pleasing a product maybe, our view of it may shift were we to discover it was less or more ethical, environmentally beneficial or damaging, made by hand or machine, or by people who are well paid or on poverty wages. Everyday aesthetics has no perceptual absolutes, its highly suggestible to subjective views, instincts and habits.

This draws out that fundamentally everyday aesthetic judgements have moral values underpinning them, which people, objects and environments can support or offend against. When we are presented with an object or a building that doesn't show sufficient respect for our humanity then we are existentially hurt by it.  She puts her case well for how everyday aesthetic judgements are not as trivial or insignificant as we might assume, they are what makes the human world we inhabit what it is. If we find we live in an ugly, inhuman heartless environment, then this is reflecting back how much our civilisation has lost its human scale and values.

The aesthetic feeling for the everyday moment is so embedded into our way of being, we are rarely fully conscious of the judgements we are making. The next time I pick up a kitchen knife, I'll try to respond to it not just from a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, but pay closer attention to the aesthetics of its design, how it looks, how it feels in my hand, how its functionality feels as it cuts through vegetables, the sounds it makes, the smells that arise, the affect this has upon me and in what way I respond. Do I find this experience aesthetically pleasurable, unpleasurable, or am I a little bit unmoved by it all?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW ~ David Sedaris ~ Me Talk Pretty One Day

Sometimes I get the feeling that I'm always coming late to a party everyone else has been at for 'absolutely ages darling, where have you been' and so it was with David Sedaris. Most days of the week at 6.30pm its time for dinner in our community, the six of us gathering around our grand sized dinning table for some vegetable based dish in a red sauce with chick peas thrown in for added flatulence. For some reason, past recollection, Hubby and I were in our room at 6.25. one evening, when the Radio 4 news slipped seamlessly into the 6.30 comedy half hour, and the deep voiced announcer said 'and next we have Meet David Sedaris.' At first Sedaris's high register voice was an alarming contrast to the bass resonances of the announcer, raised questions; who exactly were you hearing 'is this a woman? a man but transgender, halfway towards an op? no, I don't think so'  Once you've adjusted and tuned ino this, his witty gently self deprecating stories do, gradually cast a spell over you. By the end I turned to Hubby and said, 'I've not heard humorous writing of that quality in a long time, its rather rare and unique these days.' His stories, though they remain funny on the page, do become something even greater when you hear him speak them, full of telling inflections, sharp comic timing, and that subtlest of skills, the well judged pause.

And so began our hunt for anything Sedaris related. We scoured You Tube, and Hubby began pestering me for when I'd be finished with 'And when you are engulfed in Flames', so he could read and giggle to himself too. Both of us applied for BBC tickets for live recordings for his Radio 4 show, and both didn't getting any. For some reason I'd thought 'Me talk pretty one day' would be ideal reading matter to take on a largely silent Buddhist retreat. Maybe I just thought a little levity wouldn't hurt. Well, actually it does. Luckily I ended up in a dorm on my own, otherwise I'd have had to actively suppress my guffaws, giggles and hoots a bit more assiduously than I did. Well, I say that, but I still had to bite my knuckles and slap an open hand right over my mouth after 11 o'clock at night. So never ever ake this book on retreat with you, or read it late at night because I guarantee you'll not get to sleep afterwards.

Like the best humorists, Sedaris knows just how far to stretch the truth without breaking credulity. Well judged exaggeration for comic effect is a fine art. There are many excellent stories in this collection but Big Boy, though short, is a particular favourite. He's at dinner with friends and he goes to the loo, finding to his consternation there's a huge turd already floating in the toilet basin. It was a 'long and coiled specimen, as thick as a burrito'. The humour comes from his attempts to get rid of it, and his self consciousness about not leaving it there, in case the next person using the toilet thinks it came from him. It observes in fine detail the ridiculous lengths we go to sometimes, in trying to maintain our dignity in the eyes of others.

A subject matter Sedaris returns to quite frequently are language classes. For someone who doesn't appear to be naturally gifted at learning a language, he attends these a lot. Maybe he holds secret hopes of being a linguist, or simply sees it as a useful source for material, in other words its research. In this book the story Jesus Shaves documents a French class, and how he and his fellow learners struggle with sentence construction, grammar or simply finding the correct word to use, such as in this extract.

'Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food. 'Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb' the Italian nanny explained. "One too eat of the chocolate" " And who brings the chocolate?" the teacher asked. I knew the word, so I raised my hand saying. " The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate." 

His attempts to be an artist, his first job as a teacher, the problems of moving and living in France with his partner Hugh and his teenage difficulties with a speech therapist who tried to cure him of his lisp. All become subject matter to be scrutinised with his wit and a keen observational eye for that telling detail or phrase. We can all recognise ourselves in the human frailties on show here, the ludicrous behaviour, irrational idiosyncrasies, evasions and foibles. Sedaris's relationship with his Mother, Father or siblings, and their evident mild eccentricities make them all the more loveably human, and hence you tend to hold them in affection rather than ridicule.  Rarely cruel just to get a laugh, his humour works on recognition rather than the use of gratuitous swearing, personal insults or cruel putdowns. Sedaris is more scathing and honest about himself, lampooning his own behaviour far more than anyone else's. This I think is why its so easy to fall in love with his writing, it has a genuine warmth that rarely panders to sentimentality or loses its frankness or cutting edge.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

DIARY 126 ~ Under The Breath

The purpose of most Buddhist retreats is to take you deeper in ones practice, in your understanding and appreciation of it, on technical, experiential and spiritual levels. I chose Receptivity, Death & Rebirth at Padmaloka Retreat Centre because, being a person who finds regular meditation a difficult ideal to consistently meet these days, its good for me to actively partake in a meditation retreat. They act as a reminder that its not impossible, given good circumstances, for me to still be an effective meditator.

There was a strong emphasis on the Just Sitting practice, of being openly receptive to the fruits of previous practice and encourage an open flexible experience of the present moment. 'Being in the present moment' is one of those terms tossed around quite loosely within populist psycho-spirituality, sounding so matter of fact and knowingly obvious, it appears as if this must be easy to do. It is far from being so. For what exactly is the present moment anyway? How could one become aware to it, when the practice as it presents itself is almost a methodless method.

Like in most meditation practices, a beginner's initial experience of Just Sitting will be of your attention being dragged left and right in a constant flux of distractedness. You just sit with this, with whatever presents itself to your experience within any moment. Any such perception is a subjective one, you cannot be truly objective about it. Objectivity would suggest that you and the present moment are something that could  be stood separate from and be impartial about. This is not really possible. The looker and what is looked at are locked in an intimate embrace.  Philosphically this can lead to more abstruse questions about whether ourselves or the world out there, actually have any verifiable concrete reality at all.  Whatever the theoretical view of what the present moment is. experientially it is mediated through the feeling responses, mental ideas and concepts we generate around and about it. The lover and what is loved cannot be divorced without there first being a falling out of love.

What I began exploring on the retreat was how, and to what extent, it was possible to drop the interpretive filter that experience gets passed through.  Could one just sit with experience as experience and not make it 'mine' by naming, defining and describing every single sensory sensation in a running commentary?  To change awareness you must take closer notice of the timbre of that awareness . The Mindfulness of Breathing practice gave the first clues on how I might adjust my approach.  I've heard it said numerous times that the key in the Mindfulness of Breathing is to take a real interest in the breath as a living changeable process, and how this affects and manifests itself in the body. For the first time I abandoned my previous view that the breath was inherently uninteresting, and allowed myself to become drawn into the gentler subtleties of the breath.  Concentration arrives in the Mindfulness of Breathing when the breath and the present moment become intimately aligned.

Subtle and light, like dust specks caught in strong sunlight, is suggestive of the sort of qualities required in Just Sitting. One morning halfway through the retreat we were all sat in silence in the breakfast lounge. A thought crossed my mind, 'why don't you just listen to sounds in the present moment? '  So I took in sounds, of doors opening, toast being buttered, knives cutting on plates, people eating, people sighing, tea urns steaming, wind buffering against glass, wood stoves humming etc. It turned into a beautifully wrought and intricate symphony. The present moment does have a musical quality to it; of soto voce, everything under the breath, of crescendo to pianissimo and all manner of combinations and counterpoints in between. Gradually, visual movements, my own presence at the feast, and my responses all began to weave themselves into the fabric of the present moment. It became utterly beguiling, quite delightful, if not a we bit thrilling. This experience became the guide for how in the future I might approach not only Just Sitting, but any practice, even extending it to practice in everyday life itself. Adopting an air of interest that isn't possessive of what it sees.

The content of the present moment varies, somethings are currently still, for them movement is in stasis, but the things which are in movement do so in complex, simple, gross and subtle ways.. I sat at times in the shrine room, where everywhere appeared motionless in the meditative atmosphere, yet within this were tiny gentle sounds blending into the background, or the visually insignificant passing of a shadow across a vase of flowers. Our experience of the present moment can be over focused on the central dramatic event unfolding before us. Our senses becoming closed down, numbed or indifferent to the full spectrum of what is there within one moment. When you start to open up to just sitting with the present moment, it has a quality of wonder and childlike fascination to it, as it inhabits your awareness. One is no longer just the interpreter that collects and names experiences like ticking off a list - toast check, cough check, rain check, door closing check, feeling bored check etc.

At your best one sits in the present moment taking it all in, and being aware that you are taking it all in, with little or no subsequent analysis. The long term consequnces of regularly brushing against this state, learning how it might be sustained, cannot be underestimated. Just Sittng  shows great potential for insight should one wish to go there.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

DREAM ~ Needing To Bury Ones Dead

I've been experiencing a sequence of dreams, in a three part serialisation, stretching over a few weeks. I'm in my parents old house in Crowle, and I'm in the bedroom I had as a teenager. In the first dream I'm playing music in that bedroom, but I am me now as agrown up, not me as a teenager. Into the room arrives a young boy around 12 years old I guess. I want him to leave my room, but he wont go, so I push him, he hits his head on the corner of a walland falls slumped on the floor. I go over to check he's OK, but he is dead.

The second installment, quite a few days later, felt like it picked up from the end of the last dream. I'm less clear what it was about but it had a lot of hightened anxiety and horror at what had happened. The third and,hopefully, final part happened whilst I was on retreat. This is quite a while after the death, I'm still in the bedroom with the dead body, but the dead body is rotting and there are maggots wriggling all over it. I know I have to dispose of it before the stench aroses attention. The dream centres on anxieties about how to move the body. This imperative dominates the emotional tone of the dream, but the body never gets moved in the dream,because I prevaricate about what's best to do.

These dreams seem like companion pieces to a previous dream sequence I'd had five or six years ago. Those all revolved about someone I'd killed and buried under a hearth. I have to move it before its discovered, and this took place in three different places over three different dreams. In the first, it was under a hearth in an old house that was being modernised to blend in with a new estate. In the second, it was under a hearth in a fireplace showroom on the top floor of a department store, In the third dream, I'm walking along a street near where I know the body is buried under a street grate, one of the person's walking with me knew this, and is trying to expose my crime for all to see.

These dreams do mean something to me on a feeling tone level, something was put to an end in my youth, youthful dreams were perhaps dashed. The evidence of this is somehow lingering with me now .Its rotting psychological corpse is metaphorically perfuming my senses still. I need to leave this to further percolate to feel exactly what needs giving a decent burial. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

POEMS ~ Its Amazing What Happens When You Just Sit With Yourself

Here are a few poems, a bit unpolished, that I wrote whilst on a retreat Receptivity, Death & Rebirth at Padmaloka, which has stimulated quite a lot of reflections, of which I may write more later.


Not less than one
is the beat of my thought pulse
with little to gild it with
but a nano second of a passing muse
with no time to wave
before it too has gone
no crowning moment
devastating finale
or clasped hurrah!
just the muffled crunch
of slippered steps on gravel
moving into the distance
and fading within my mind
into mist.


This appears to be no more than an attitude
a point of perspective
placed at an irregular angle
best not make it a defined intent
it gets complicated
its a sliver of something
pasted into the background
like a convex mirror
in a Dutch masterpiece
reflecting on everything that moves
from a clear, yet distorted viewpoint
as if seen from the back
in reverse
in a fishes eye
a fraction of a second
after the moment has passed


Not in my guts, in my sex,
in my little toe, am I
today I am
an excess of acidity
searing my stomach lining
medium rare
grumbles and moans surface
tuning in to my inner teenager
'who are you to tell me what to do
what I am or am not
whether I is an am at all
serving up your existential quandaries
before I've even had my porridge,
its cruel, Christ! its breakfast time!!
surely if hunger exists
it can be satisfied?'


It sounds similar to....

the soft bass and thrumming drum roll
of wood burning in a stove.

a car's low intoned throaty hum
far off on a motorway

a plane's high trailed crackle and thrust
long passed beyond sight, and out of time,
leaving condensed air waves, and a resonant hum
as an after thought.

or a fart, from an unknown fartee, recently blown off
but lingering regretfully in the air

Note what, who or which of these it was
and let them go, let them pass through
don't hold them here, damn it.
bloody let go of them!
let them all die away


There is always
a something
a person
an ideal
we are stepping away from;
phenomena ~ natural or supernatural
feelings ~ base or refined
pursuits ~ trivial or profound
relationships ~ interpersonal or trans personal
in all cases
we're backing off
we're scared
we know and don't want to know
as the strings are drawn
ineluctably moving us towards
an ever closer bond
with whatever intimacy it is.


For some
whenever it rains
it falls both inside and out
whenever its sunny
it shines both inside and out
whenever its cloudy
it overshadows both inside and out

Whenever rain falls upon a sunny nature
it blesses everything it touches
by cooling, bathing and glistening them

Whenever sun shines upon a rainy nature
it warms everything it touches
mopping up the moisture
from pools, gutters and tears.

whenever clouds blanket the sky
cunningly withholding their beauty,
both from inside and out
no glimmer of light escapes
unsuffused or obscured by doubts
or fear of the unhealed dream
leaving us at the mercy and merits
of our own devices
and whether
in the state we are in
we swim or drown.


Wildness, is a dance, often
done blindfolded
by those who desire
to be free of form
arching, crashing and bending everywhere
like branches being whipped by a storm
flailing after expressing something
that in their flailing
they can never catch
yet in this ungraspable state
lies the appeal of being wild
of being in touch with
a facsimile, a trial performance
fully dressed up and everything
but dreadfully under rehearsed
for the true liberation.


Winding round
as though turning a windlass
navigating ritual space
with only a stupa to guide us
everything and nothing is present in each step
no praying, no chanting, no pressure
but the catching of a thought
in respect of each moment
and through such momentum
of concentrated circularity
we walk with our time, clockwise
feigning indifference to the fizz of mosquito's
squiggling the air around us
but nonetheless are distracted by them
whilst above, in the dimness
of a late afternoon autumnal sky
a posse of black winged birds,
sweep counter clockwise
as if mimicking or mocking us
instinctively forming an orderly circle
and collectively feeding
off flies.

DIARY 125 ~ Holiday In Old Amsterdam

In September Jnanasalin and I had a six day holiday in Amsterdam. For us holidays are rarely about where we go for a break, but just giving ourselves one. Amsterdam was one of many places in Europe we'd like to visit; Centre of the Dutch Golden Age; the Van Gogh Museum; Dutch Apple Pie etc. What draws us anywhere is usually a mix of History, Art and Cakes, with a fluctuating sense of priority.

Our first day was quite exhausting. take my advice don't set off on a walk into the city centre from your hotel thinking it would only be a forty minute amble. An hour and a half later we arrived in the frantic commercial throng of the Leidsplein and Dam area, an area which I have to say has little left to make it appealing. Amsterdam looks deceptively small on maps, distances appearing to be a shortish walk turn into a huge hike through the marijuna haze of other tourists. As a city, Amsterdam does have a warm, welcoming and friendly demeanour. You have to remind yourself, you're not a resident, you're a tourist too, as a phalanx of tourists on cycles wobble / hurtle dangerously past you.

Having learnt from our first days herculean effort, our second was executed with slightly more knowing and relaxed sophistication. We followed a circular tour around parts of the Jordaan, which was a lot more like what we were hoping for from our holiday. Nice cafes and restaurants, historical houses and churches, an idiosyncratic and interesting  range of shops. Here we could take our time more. We'd plannned after our second day we'd buy a three day 'I Amsterdam Card' for 67 euros, and from then on hit the museums and tourist spots with a vengance. We bought a similar thing when we were in Bruges, which saved us quite a bit of money. In order to make the most of it, it did mean we were averaging around five places visited a day, sometimes more. We got our money's worth, our 67 euros buying us about 200 euros of entrance fees and travel.

From the Hermitage exhibtion

So, we saw a lot, and consequently the trip became a quite busy and full on one, but satisfying none the less. Some personal highlights were an exhibition at the Amsterdam Hermitage of Romanov tableware, which doesn't sound remotely exciting, but its amazing what presentation that is inventive and superlative can do. The Winkel Cafe, in the Norde Kerk area, where we had an excellent coffe and the best Dutch Apple Tart of our visit.

Winkel's Cofee & Apple Tart

Then there was the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, which, not surpriingly given the central role played by Dutch artists,had a very good collection of 20th Century, plus an engaging range of contemporary art. I loved the multi screen video work of Sarah Carlier, eight screens each with an apparently motionless, slowly changing image, at some point there was or will be an event or action, but when? There was a wonderful sense of expectation, of waiting, a quiet patient space, similar to Just Sitting. You just sat observing small comings or goings. there and not there, the things that were quietly changing.

Of the Amsterdam Zoo we both had mixed feelings, some of the animals just appeared sad, or depressed to us. Apart from the seals which were a simple delight, just watching their playfulness and joi de vivre.

The Museum that looks like its under a sink

My first De Witt wall drawing in the flesh, Hurrah!

 Comparisons between countries are often odious, but there are things which are glaringly different. Amsterdam has a reliable, frequent and truly integrated transport system. The UK appears not to know the real meaning of those words. There are hardly any large scale national or international retail chains, consequently there are a thousand varieties of independent shops. In the UK we support enterprise and innovation by encouraging bigger companies to move here, their greater market clout squeezing out those smaller entrepeneurs trying to nuture something interesting to grow.  In Amsterdam good pleasent customer service seemed natural, and always present, people appeared to enjoy it, whereas in the UK its seen as more like a contractual obligation or optional extra.  On our return from the continent the UK always feels small and pinched, in scale, in ambition and mindset, not to mention grubby and mean spirited.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

FEATURE 126 ~ Van Gogh ~ Undergrowth

The famous paintings by Van Gogh, the chairs, sunflowers, starry skies and turbulent corn fields, for me pale in comparison to his paintings of simple patches of ground. The National Gallery in London has an absolutely fabulous painting of Long grass with butterflies, which I was thrilled and transfixed by when I first saw it.

Last week whilst in Amsterdam with Jnanasalin, I was wandering around the vast collection in the Van Gogh Museum when I stumbled across this painting called 'Undergrowth'. From the first moment I stood infront of it I was bathed in wave after wave after wave of blissful feelings that made me almost want to cry they were so beautiful. Quite what it is about these seemingly quite ordinary paintings that moves me so much I can't as yet really grasp. Maybe that is sort of beside the point, they do move me immensely, and it feels like its a beauitiful gift that arrives unannounced.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ARTWORK ARCHIVE ~ A State of Alarm

Most of my recent work arises out of various versions of an Alarm Symbol such as :~

A State of Alarm was te first piece where I used this symbol as its starting point.. Using strong colours it is still connected with my previous crsip and controlled style. The overlapping onto the frame was beginning to feel like a bit of a personal stylistic cliche for me. One I noticibly haven't used since this piece. As my explorations progressed I departed gradually from maintaining the form of the symbol as a central dominating focus.

A State of Alarm by Vidyavajra

PROJECTS 2014 ~ Opening Possibilities

Continuing with my 'field' experiments using the alarm sign as source material. Beginning to get intimations of needing to move on to other source materials, or at least have a break from this one for a while. Nonetheless, I'm enjoying the sort of loosening up process that's happening, wherebye other possibilities start to present themselves.

In the Form of a Collision

The Ever Present Ghost

Sunday, September 07, 2014

ARTWORK ARCHIVE ~ Mathematical Sign Series

Whilst still in the early exploratory stages of finding out what sort of artwork I wanted to do, I started using signs and symbols as the creative beginnings of them. I found then, and still do now, that I need something to kick start and get the creative juices flowing. My training in Graphic Design played its part too, leaving me a fondness for gouache as a medium and for the forms of international signage. These signs of necessity are simple and communicate universally.  They also, perhaps unconsciously, draw on fundamental forms which  often have archetypal resonances.  These resonances and meanings are sometimes buried within them. Mathematical symbols are a case in point. Extraordinarily simple marks, ones easily scratched into stone, clay or wood, these signs for add, subtract, divide and multiply are some of our most ancient human signs. Imbued with a rich mixture of meanings with practical, religious and magical significance

The four paintings as shown below were created over a period of twelve years. As a consequence they also chart developments in my artistic process, changes in the style of my work and a growing confidence with what I want to do with it.

Completed in 1994, it's one of the earliest of my completed pieces. I'd only begun painting my own artwork a year or so before. Even at this stage, themes that reoccur in subsequent work were already making themselves present. A fondness for squares and circles, and work seeping over onto the frame, both make there first appearance in 'Affirmation'.  My sources for design elements were often adaptions from Medieval pattern books or fabric and lace designs. The works title is incorporated into the piece as part of a broad border within it.

This was the first time I'd attempted overlaying gouache colours, and learnt to my cost that I needed to be more aware of whether the colours I was using were staining or fugitive ones. When It came to the final layer of the spiky white circle, the magenta gouache kept seeping through. These sort of technical difficulties arose out of  inexperience and a process of creation where I never quite knew for certain where a piece might finally end up. In this case I learnt that PVA or white acrylic could 'seal off' the surface so staining colours wouldn't come through and I could then paint white gouache on top of them. The overriding feeling i was after was to create a visual sense of the plus/add sign's intrinsically positive nature

Affirmation by Vidyavajra

Though painted the following year in 1995, I was still following pretty much the same creative process and resources as before. The title 'Apportion' is woven into a border design, the cursive lettering I chose has its mirror reflection placed opposite it. The resulting border is reminiscent of Art Deco though that was entirely arrived at by chance, it wasn't a consciously created effect at all. Both the background pattern and that used in the central 'Division' sign are adaptions from a book of Medieval Tile Designs, where i devised my own colourways. Across this I've spread symmetrically an array of bright Ultramarine Blue squares that sing out against the more earthy browns, greens, and bronze of the background tones.

With this piece I was trying to give visual form to dividing as an apportioning, with the attendant qualities of equality and fairness that these concepts imply. I didn't want to risk painting the white flowers over the top of the background colours. So, I played it safe and painted them on watercolour paper separately and stuck them on top afterwards. Though each is a part of a series, I didn't want to frame them the same. Given the time span over which they were painted it wouldn't have been possible anyway So each piece was framed as seemed individually appropriate.

Apportion by Vidyavajra

Again painted a year later in 1996, things have this time moved on both in terms of my creative process and confidence. I've stopped using design sources and the more traditional patterning of the first two pieces. Though you can't read any lettering saying 'abstraction' it is there, but abstracted so it can't be read. I drew out on tracing paper the letters for Abstraction, then divided them into 1 inch squares, which I then cut out and reassembled randomly to create the basic structure for the piece. This method of messing around with an element, be it lettering or symbol, to create the finished design, has became an ever increasing feature in future work.

The essential visual theme for this piece is to be drawn in, sucked in by it towards the central Subtraction sign. The subtraction sign itself needed a focal point to complete this effect, hence the small circle of gold paint in the centre. The ever decreasing radials then dominate your focus as a result. Because of the changes in my method of creating it and drawing it out onto watercolour paper, this piece departed from my 'evolutionary' approach in the creation of a piece. It required a more deliberate and thought through process. Whilst this had its benefits in avoiding those unexpected problems I'd had before, it meant my process of creation become more strongly directed and controlled. This created for me an air of frustration with the detail  and sheer slog this process involved, that I've only recently overcome. I revamped the frame of this piece for my exhibition last year. The original white frame with gold turning lines running across it and the glass, I was never that happy with as the effect I was after never really worked.

Abstraction by Vidyavajra

Whilst the first three were painted in three subsequent years, 'Amplification' wasn't finished till 2006.  The reasons for the gap is complex, but getting more involved in Buddhism and being Ordained in 2000, were significant factors in reducing my productivity. My creative focus went elsewhere for a while. However, by 2004-5 a number of changes had occurred which meant I began reconnecting with my artwork and this unfinished series. One of the things that had stalled 'Amplification' was uncertainty about what exactly to do.
Sometimes just being caught in a series of pieces can so stifle the creative process you have to go off and do something else.

The main visual element in this piece is the multiplication sign X itself. It exists in in five different sizes, in the background twice in the foreground circle  an even larger one is suggested on the frame which itself is made up of small X shaped tile dividers.  One element that interestingly connects this final piece with the first, is the use of a lace pattern in the white circular design. The frame was the last element to be created for last years exhibition. The central picture had been lying around in a folder for seven years unframed. Again this was due to uncertainty about what to do.with it. In some senses this painting marked the highpoint of my 'controlled' method of working. The experience of painting hundreds of tiny X's for the background had driven me potty taking weeks and weeks of work. After that I wanted to start gently making subtle deviations and experiments with this style. To break out of the prison I'd created around my work, to transgress a few of my own rules and established methods of working.

Amplification by Vidyavajra

Saturday, September 06, 2014

PROJECTS 2014 ~ Breaking The Pattern

I've been viaually exploring two things lately, one having evolved out of the other. My previous work has often taken a centralised form which visually recedes away from the viewer. What I've begun doing lately is to create a level 'pattern field' which suggests layers and depth within it, though still taking a sign/symbol as its creative source and starting point.  From doing these 'pattern fields' has evolved an interest in visually messing up the regularity of a pattern. Introducing random breaks into it by changes in colour density and tone, playing off line work against flat colour, and generally misleading visual expectations.

I've begun each piece by handwriting in a criss crossing grid, the whole of the Fire Sutta., underlying whatever happens in the subsequent layers over it. Sometimes its still visible, sometimes barely noticible it receeds into the general patterning. It seems appropriate that the Dharma should be underneath everything, even if its not seen. My working process has subtly altered over time, so that I now let each piece evolve at its own pace. Allowing whatever is to come next to emerge out of the completed previous stage.

This meansI have to make a practice of staying with the stage I'm currently involved with until its finished, and not thinking much at all about whatever comes next. This allows each piece to develop its own direction, and not become too fixed or predetermined by me. I'm finding this an more enjoyable way of working, largely because it circumvents my tendency to become tense and over anxious about where a piece is going. This way, not knowing is actually the name of the game.

For my birthday I was given an airbrush, its a pretty basic point and spray, which is at present all I need. 'Broken Machinery' 'Irregular Transmission' and 'Passing Through Phases' are my first pieces using it.

Anyway, here are a few of the more recent pieces.


Broken Machinery
Irregular Transmission
Passing through Phases
Soundings Are Taken

Thursday, July 24, 2014

FEATURE 125 ~ Without You My Life Would Be Boring

The Knife have just released an album of remixes of old tracks, called Shaken Up, which, judging from what's on You Tube sounds pretty far out and FAB to me. This is a remix of Without you my life would be boring,  featuring, as is usual in The Knife videos, no one from The Knife, but this time numerous people in a hospital miming to the song. There is something simultaneously quite serious, sublime and stupid about it that I find myself giggling all the way through it. Anyway here it is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

FILM REVIEW ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson, well, you either like him of loath him ,right? Certainly I've been in the latter camp ever since I saw The Royal Tenenbaums. Too knowingly quirky,too contrived and mannered, telegraphing his often rather obvious, if not lame, comic conceits several moments before they happen, then flogging them to death, plus all the Hollywood elite falling over themselves to do a humble short cameo for dear old Wes.

That was until The Grand Budapest Hotel, which for some reason avoids the pitfalls of stilted artifice and archness present in his previous movies. It's genuinely off beat, but a pure delight from start to finish. Yes, it does have a cast list to die for, with all Wes's usual collaborators putting in an often brief appearence. Two things have helped transform my appreciation of his work. First, its the script, starting from the stories of Stephan Zweig, he concocts a ludicrous confection, light, frothy and insubstantial, but it has razor sharp dialogue and moments of quick witted light footedness. Its edited very well, with a fluent speed and an unflagging romping pace. He allows just enough time for the gags and then moves on, with none of Wes's usual strangling of every last ounce of humour from a situation until its dead. Second, he has found in Raplh Fiennes a really great comic actor to base his film around. His character Gustav H, is a fantastic cartoon creation, actorly and camp, but with superbly well crafted and judged comic timing. Without Fiennes this film may well have fallen into being the standard sniggering conceit of a Wes Anderson movie.

Gustav H is a control freak, the servant/lover of all his blonde female guests. He is there purely to serve their every need, and I mean every need. He runs the hotel like clock work, as he brings on his latest ingenue Zero as Lobby Boy. With the death of an elderly Countess, he finds himself bequeathed a highly valueable painting, and the vengence of her family knows know legal bounds to get it back. Its a wonderful farce, inhabited with the spirit and tone of a boy's own adventure.

 Taking place on the edge of conflict, there is a framing poignancy surrounding this story. A certain style and approach to life was already in the process of fading away, a flickering candle to be extinguished completely by the ensuing war. Gustav H upholds certain standards, never be caught smelling of anything other than a rare perfume even when escaping from prison and being chased across snow.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

DIARY 124 ~ Talky Talky Happy Talk

Even though my back is playing up badly at the moment, the muscles around my hips and shoulders are perpetually tender and painful, the pattern of my sleep seems permanently set on irregular and short, and the osteo-arthrutis in both my hands is slowly worsening, I am quite happy, at this juncture my life is good.
Why is this? Human beings, and I make no exception of myself from this, don't generally pause to wonder why they are happy, or what has brought this pleasant state about. We welcome it with open arms and, if we wonder about anything, its for how long it will last. Generally we are better at the causes of our suffering and pain, which we often catalogue and rail over in minute detail.

I would hazard a guess that the causes for this present good state are relatively simple. I've recently joined the Property Team at Windhorse:evolution, which I am currently rather enjoying. We are in the process of revamping seven or eight of our shops, in a much overdue rebranding. Initially I was drafted in to paint the new Evolution typeface signage onto planked panels. Much to my surprise I've done them to a really professional standard, and they look good up on the wall too. I'm also supervising the painting of uprights, shelves and assorted furniture & fittings for the shops. Its all gone very well, puts a feather in my cap, so my general self confidence levels are robust, if not high.

I'm only doing alternate shop fits, yet the intensity of these plus the unrelenting painting work prior to them, is I suspect the primary reason why my back is so troublesome at present. I feel constantly tired. I was aware last week that I'd been running for the last two or three months, pretty much at maximum capacity, given my continual sleep deprivation, its effect on my energy level, and of course my bodies numerical age. The three days of a revamp are full on, being physically, mentally and spiritually demanding affairs. By the end of the first day of the Norwich Shop's revamp. I was pretty pooped and tell tale early signs of strain in my back were wagging a finger at me. A week later I'm still nursing it and there's no sign of it easing off yet. Standing up or sitting down for too long are still an issue.

Since my Solitary Retreat At Home in April, my personal painting has continued to go from strength to strength. Pushing my artwork into fresh and often uncharted areas. Being able to practice 'Just Painting' quite regularly, taps into a deeper need for some form of creative expressive outlet in my life. So this is one very significant factor in my current happier disposition. There are, however, a few issues around that remain outstanding.

The website for my artwork is still unfinished after nearly a year. I haven't yet cracked getting consistently top quality photographs of my artwork. The main limitation is my camera, which is has a mini compact zoom, with a wide angle, that's unable to take photographs without bowing the edges of paintings. Any future plans I might have to sell printed reproductions, cards or any other use they might be put to, all hinge on photography good enough for reproduction. Until I'm over this hurdle, all these sort of ideas are a bit of a none starter. I have yet to find a gallery through which to try selling my work. which I was hoping to use my website as a promotional  tool for. I could go on, but I wont, for fear of soiling the mood.

So these few things are still hanging in the wings awaiting my attention or finding a workable solution. There's the lack of time, at present also energy, to resolve all the above outstanding issues. There is also the at times interminal struggles with my own apathy, which I do on occasions find frustrating. I am making it a practice to try remaining relatively cool without becoming insipid, about when these things might significantly move on. In my current lifestyle, I must acknowledge, there is not sufficient time to do more than keep painting. So I'm learning how to be more laid back ,if not patient about it, which in itself supports and encourages a happier visage for Vidyavajra.

Jnanasalin and I's civil partnership was two years ago this coming September. Though we each have our individual areas of strain and difficulty, in our relationship we are still happy, infused as it is with a sense of enjoyment and appreciation of each others qualities, and an easy compatibility. We are also committed to supporting each other in our respective creative and spiritual endeavours. This is a very significant positive factor, whose impact is easy to underestimate. I don't believe either of us would be attempting to do what we are currently doing in our work or creativity, if our relationship wasn't at present a consistent and stable one.

One should never take any of the above for granted, of course. Last night I was doing some preparation for Mitra Study on the Attandanda Sutta, from the Sutta Nipata. One of the lines that stood out for me was 'whatever things are tied down in the world, you shouldn't be set on them' . In other words, you can't be set, rely or depend on anything being permanent no matter how fixed or tied down they might appear to be in the present moment. Happiness, like any other phenomena, has a fluctuating transitory history. In moments of absentia it's likely to slip your grasp.

Sunday, July 06, 2014


Silence is an Irish film, directed by Pat Collins from 2012, which I seem to have missed noticing completely at the time. Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhride plays a sound recordist living and working in Berlin. You first experience Berlin entirely through the sound he's recording, sounds drowning inside sounds, man made noises chugging,rumbling and screeching. He receives some sort of commission to record sound back in his home county in Ireland. Its a particular quality of sound they want, quiet sounds, sounds with no man made presence in them. It's never explained for whom he's doing this. There is a conversation with his girlfriend in Berlin, where she asks why he needs to do this. Significantly what he says gets drowned out by the sound of a freight train. Something is unsettled, not right with him, and their relationship. This takes you all of five minutes into the film.

The rest of the movie  continues as if it were a hybrid of an audio documentary, with visuals added as a beautiful afterthought. As the film progresses you find yourself paying closer and closer attention to the qualities and varieties of sounds. Sometimes its natural sounds, then sounds of someone singing or speaking, interspersed with old film recordings of a past Ireland, then the roar and thrum of wind, rain and sea, the sounds of a landscape speaking whilst mankind listens. As one voice says, silence is the space between noises. At various points he bumps into people, local folk giving their own slant on their quiet lives rooted in their sense of place and their belonging. The film, if its about anything, it is this search for a sense of belonging through sound.  The sounds of a place provide texture and definition to our experience of this. The main character has moved away, maybe kept himself away from home for fifteen years. Where indeed does he truly belong now?

By the end of the film he returns to his island home, a place so suffused with familiar sounds that he appears to stop recording them. What was previously a vicarious acquisitive collecting of sound, becomes more and more a personal recollection of it. The film concludes with him visiting the family home,now empty and much dilapidated. As he walks around its musty, damp, almost windowless rooms, the sounds of distant voices half remembered and indistinct are background sounds, as if emerging from out of the walls of the house. Recollected sounds of a place once filled with human activity and noise. Sounds of past lives, of his past life.

Silence, as a film, is more poetry than narrative, more an evocation than representation. Suffused with beauty and a poignancy that is never forced or laboured over. It reminds me of Tarkovsky at times, or John Cage's 4 mins 33 seconds, where what one hears during the pieces duration, are the sounds of whatever is happening in those moments in the concert hall. Like Cage, this film subverts the artifice that's obviously there. Mixing story and reality,actors and people playing themselves, it blurs the distinctions between drama and documentary, subtly and to really superb effect. Its a simple pure delight, that I suspect will repay repeated viewing.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Instructions for the Artist ~ No 8 ~ Putting Your Whole Attention Into The Work

The eighth in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

'Put your whole attention into the work, 
seeing just what the situation calls for.'

I don't know about you, but my mind does wander off, losing focus and deliberative purpose. In the middle of a conversation with a friend my attention might be drawn away by something happening on the periphery of my awareness, a plane flying over or a phone ringing. My friend might be telling me a really interesting tale about what happened to them and yet I find myself wondering what led them to choose that T shirt or make judgements about them based on the unkempt nature of their shoes. Failing this then my mind will return to further ruminate upon some minor upset earlier in the day or in my life. In short, my attention wanders.

Our mind becomes drunk on experiences. In its inebriated state, it has two major things it leans upon for support; to look backwards, to remember, to try to reconfigure aspects of our past experience; or to look forward, to envision, to preconfigure or fix, in our minds at least, what the future will be like. This may not be entirely without practicality or usefulness. We do need to make sense of what has past. It could help us behave better if we reflected on and learnt from our previous experience, and be carried forward to influence future behaviour. This might make us better at handling whatever comes our way. If only all this were true.

The majority of our mental activity is useless activity, mostly trivial concerns, sometimes positively unhelpful, particularly if we are trying to improve the nature of our interactions, to be kinder, more beneficial or ethical. Our mental processes are dominated by selfish emotional impulses which proliferate along a rambling associative line of thought. Anxious, paranoid, neurotic, envious, vengeful, mostly selfish, or self-deluded thoughts, with poor self esteem running through it like an underground stream through rock. Against these thoughts our better nature struggles, to contain, to neutralise or overcome them.  So bringing our whole attention to our work will be of no small order.

Whether you're working or not, it's good to be able to concentrate on what you are presently doing. A good cook has to think ahead, to when things need to be cooked by. This shouldn't be confused with multi-tasking. It's about maintaining a broad awareness of ones purpose in the present moment, what you are trying to achieve, how you are to achieve it and when you want it achieved by. Remaining aware of the passage of time, recalling our past experience of cooking the recipe, what went well, what would improve it,what proved to be a mistake. In other words 'seeing just what the situation calls for'.

'Putting your whole attention into the work', might be seen as keeping ones attention in the present moment. If you've ever tried consciously to do this you'll know it requires an impossible level of rigid mental discipline. We intuit that being in the present moment ought to be possible, but find it is has a much more slippery fluid feel than that. It's something that cannot be taught. We come into alignment with the present moment through creating the conditions from which we might experience it. We train ourselves in meditation to calm our distracted mental state, eventually being able to bring this more and more tangibly into everyday life.

In everyday life, you have to remain mindful of what your overall purpose is. This includes everything that feeds into the present moment, what preceded it and what is yet to come. Being aware of ones past and current mental, emotional and physical state, what our habitual responses and reactive tendencies to those are, and where these might lead if we do or don't focus upon them. Attentiveness to the needs and state of the people you're working with, is also called for. Holding all these within a broad spectrum of awareness, without becoming hooked on them, and staying focused on the demands of the immediate task before us. You wont be able to stay in the present moment simply by design or desire, but by paying attention to what pulls your attention away from it. What or where is this present moment anyway? It can seem like a thinly sliced piece of ham, invisibly sandwiched between the bread of the past and future. The present moment wont be found if we see it as a destination, but if we become one with the nature of the journey, alive to when life is being fully lived.

Whilst working on an artwork, I travel back and forth from the past, to the present and the future of what I'm doing. I find if I think too much about a pieces future development I become tense and more anxious. The experience in the present moment is of confusion, creative direction becomes frozen, frigid even, as it is mired in the quicksand of uncertainty. If future thinking dominates, this usually indicates my ego, rather than the work itself, is now leading the creative process. Issues of self identity and reputation begin to infuse thoughts; the usual I'm a good artist/bad artist stuff; will this piece be rubbish or the most wonderful, ground breaking thing I've ever done?  Dwelling in the present, in the uncertain place that is the future inevitably does frighten you.

The past, is an imaginary place constructed around facts. All history has this illusory stability and coherence that we embroider around it. Everything we've ever experienced acquiring a sepia toned homogeneity, created by our endless remembering of it. To remember the past is to reconstruct it, to redesign and update it. Our desire in the present moment is to turn the past into a prediction of the future. Creatively, thinking of the past, has for me a depressive air,it smells of death and decay. It usually means I've become stuck in a habit, a comfortingly familiar idea or way of working.  Whatever we had in the past, has by virtue of time passing, been lost.  Past glories, past times, past endeavours, all tell you you have past it, whatever 'it' is. My artwork and creative process then becomes overly self-identified, a self designating rather than a liberating thing. This is what I am, this is what I do, this how I do it. Dwelling in the present, in the certain place that is the past inevitably does bore you.

I try to counter this past/future dichotomy, by trying to stay with whatever stage in the creative process I'm currently in. Actively discouraging myself from worrying about what I've done or where I'm going with it, and staying with what I'm doing. Sol Le Witt said  'If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results'  So there is artistic benefit in sticking with the zeitgeist of the present creative moment.  My mind still gets drawn back into past ideas or distracted by future prognostications. Yet similar to meditation, you simply bring your mind back to the focus of the artistic practice, which is right in front of you. Through listening attentively to what you are currently doing, you do unconsciously prepare the ground for whatever is to come next. You cultivate calmly abiding with whatever you are presently doing, give it your whole and undivided attention, and not drift off into past or future concerns. If I'm able to stay with whatever is happening right in front of me, then when a particular idea has been followed through and completed, whatever is to come next generally emerges quite clearly into my mind. It seems blatantly obvious to state, but the future always arises out of the present moment.

It's similar to tomorrows weather, we all read or hear the forecasts, but until you wake up to find it's gloriously sunny you won't decide to take that long walk along the riverbank, or to visit the seaside. You could spend time the night before worrying about the uncertainties of the English weather, and what you may or may not be able to do the next day if you wish. Until the conditions of the present moment arrive you don't really know what you actually will do. Its in the nature of the present moment to trigger the unexpected, to allow exciting things to arise. We all carry with us excess mental and emotional baggage, that encumbers our ability to give what we are doing right now our full attention. Once we are aware of what we bring to the present moment then we are more able to 'see what the situation calls for'.  Dwelling in the present does inevitably enliven you. For the present moment is the active energised place where we are simply being alive.