Showing posts from May, 2012

Leaving home to enlighten at 40

Sadhu Videhi is an Indian sannyasi: a wandering monk. He surrendered a successful professional career as a clinical psychologist, renounced everything and carrying a shoulder bag, two spare pieces of cloth and a begging bowl, walked away from home at the age of 40.

He took the name of Sadhu, the Hindu name for a renunciate (although he would not call himself a Hindu) and took the name Videhi meaning "no body" as a reminder that we are not the body. He was barefoot and trusting in the love of God and inspired by the example of his guru Jesus, and the Hindu tradition of sannyasi, he stepped into a whole new experience. 

Coming from a wealthy family he had never walked barefoot, slept rough or been short of money, but he says he has never regretted his decision, even for a minute, and has rarely been hungry. He acknowledges the first year was very difficult - he had a huge ego and begging for food was very challenging, particularly when he was refused with a gesture of dismissal.…

On a Deserted Shore

'On a Deserted Shore' is a sequence of 130 short poems by Kathleen Raine searing to memory her relationship with the naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, following his death.

It is not memorialised through detail for that one must read her Autobiographies but through a meditation on love and loss, on the soul and its relationship with embodiment and the beyond, on the offerings we make to one another and the guilt of our failure to fulfil the grace and mystery of those offerings.

It is, I think, one of the finest long sequences of poems in English in the Twentieth century and her testament as poet.

I read it first at school and read it with a philosophical eye, dispassionately, probably noting how its underlying spirituality is what I understood as neo-Platonism!

Reading it yesterday evening in the Agenda volume that is a tribute to Kathleen, it struck, and struck home, with a very different sense of depth and resonance.

Midway in my own life, I find questions of both origin…

Brook Green Suite

I have loved this gentle, evocative suite of music from Gustav Holst since I first heard it performed when I was a student. It is music I want played at my funeral capturing a particular sense of place in time. It was composed for Holst's pupils at St Paul's Girl's School that overlooked the Green. A piece of music sufficiently complex to challenge them, yet suitable to play and be played well. Though it was written in 1933, at the end of his life, for me it captures a sense of that serenity (seen only in retrospect perhaps) that was the time that immediately preceded the First World War: pastoral, idealistic, hopeful.

Holst is an under appreciated composer, overshadowed by his most famous work: the Planets and by his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was a serious student both of heterodox Christianity and Hindu tradition (attempting to learn both Greek and Sanskrit so he could read texts in their original) and blended religious interest and socialism in a way that was …

Annals of the Western Shore

"Le Guin writing for children is more thought provoking than most people writing for adults," declared Publishing News reviewing 'Gifts', the first volume in her trilogy, 'Annals of the Western Shore'.

It is statement of simple truth. Reading the last in the trilogy, 'Powers', I am struck again at how quietly brilliant she is. The simplicity of her short sentences that cumulatively build an envisioned, believable world populated by real people living contexts that invite you to think and feel through urgent questions.

In each of three volumes here, the central question revolves around how do we manage our unique vocations is such a way that honours the truth of each particular difference we carry and contributes to the flawed social worlds we inhabit? What is the art of wise compromise between the two and what are its edges? When does wise compromise become folly to surrender and conformity?

It is a question that we all must ask: how to honour our gi…

Living Time

Maurice Nicoll was an early colleague of Jung's, a life long friend of Ouspensky's and one time pupil of Gurdjieff's at Fontainebleau. Professionally he was a distinguished neurologist and psychologist who towards the end of his life took typewriter ribbon to paper and produced a remarkable series of books of which Living Time is an exemplary example.

The style of writing is paradoxically both dry, measured, restrained and completely captivating not least because of the lucidity with which it deals with, and illustrates, a complex subject matter, resistant, as St Augustine knew, to being talked about namely time (and eternity).

He is essentially an empirical neo-Platonist by which I mean his highly developed understanding of a Platonic understanding of a hierarchical universe defined through levels of consciousness is coupled with a desire to ground this in explicit (and contemporary) explorations of consciousness.

So, for example, Ramsey's (and William James') famous…

To live in the mercy of God

Bedtime reading are late poems by Denise Levertov. They are beautiful, complex yet ultimately simple and lucid of which this is an example.  A fusion of natural observation and transcendence from this confessing, renegade Catholic.
To Live in the Mercy of God by Denise Levertov
To lie back under the tallest oldest trees. How far the stems rise, rise                before ribs of shelter                                            open!
To live in the mercy of God. The complete sentence too adequate, has no give. Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of stony wood beneath lenient moss bed.
And awe suddenly passing beyond itself. Becomes a form of comfort.                       Becomes the steady air you glide on, arms stretched like the wings of flying foxes. To hear the multiple silence of trees, the rainy forest depths of their listening.
To float, upheld,                 as salt water                 would hold you,                                         once you dared.              …

From religion to spirit

It is a book I have lived with for years, and have given to several people, but thought I ought to read it rather than only dwell on its images, though what images!

Theodore Wolff's 'Morris Graves: Flower Paintings' is a fabulously beautiful book and seeks to account for a journey in painting from here...

to here:

From the Wounded Gull of 1943 to the Winter Bouquet (flowering quince, rosehaws, narcissus, winter rose and camelia) of 1977.

It is a journey from disturbance to serenity, from a painting of symbolism to one of particular presence and from a painting infused with religion to one of opened spirit.

Wolff dwells on the painterly characteristics of this transformation and does so sympathetically but it is apparent that a dimension is missing, namely the metaphysics of the unfolding art. That Graves was not consciously programmatically engaged with this is true, that he was personally engaged with it is equally true. Graves was educated in the metaphysic of both Veda…

On beauty

Lake Pedder in Tasmania, here shown before it was flooded by a highly controversial hydro-electric project, is the opening focus of John Griffin's 'On the Origin of Beauty: Ecophilosophy in the Light of Traditional Wisdom'.

Its destruction as a place whole and beautiful - and the virtual absence in the argument about that destruction of the consideration of its beauty - is the starting point of Griffin's searching, lucid and articulate book.

It is a compelling defence of the traditional understanding of beauty - that beauty is inherent in the nature of the world and that our capacity to see this is dependent on the quality of our consciousness. If we see aright, we see beauty because our seeing is in harmonious accord with the sacred reality of the world, as the divine gift in which the divine sees itself reflected. The more beautiful our living space, the more likely we are in accord with the sacred.

The occlusion of this way of seeing has been through replacing the …

A marriage of humility and pride

The foundation of Opportunity International UK, whose anniversary celebration I went to this evening, had several critical moments. (

But one I recall was when three of the trustees of the Andrews Charitable Trust and its director (me) went to visit Opportunity's work in Indonesia to assess whether we wanted to be involved. We were in Bengkulu in Sumatra and we were interviewing a client of the local Opportunity partner. He had come from Bali as part of Indonesia's short-lived and controversial policy of dispersing people from intensely populated areas to more rural ones. You got two hectares of land and a ration of rice for eighteen months. Then you were on your own.
This particular client had received a loan to start a fish farm and showed us his ponds with pride. I asked him what he thought of the Opportunity partner that had lent him the money to get started. He replied that they were the first people, ever, in his life, to treat him as a person. Th…


From the Garden by Hermann Hesse.

I remember reading it a second time the night I awaited my A-level results. I was unable to sleep not because there was any prospect of not securing my university place (I had been given an unconditional offer - the first, apparently, in the lifetime of the College) but because I might have failed my own pride, my own exacting standards.

'It' is Hermann Hesse's most celebrated novel, 'Siddhartha' that on re-reading yesterday evening I re-discovered has much to say about 'pride' - how it conditions the young Brahmin and shapes both the impulse  underlying his spiritual search and the barrier to its attainment. Pride is both necessary for believing in one's chosenness and the barrier we break through to freedom. It is a happy 'blessed fault'. What my first spiritual director, the delightful and rigorous Sr Amelie, would have called 'holy pride' - our faults, seen aright, are instruments of our liberation.

A moment that changed my history

It was a trustees' meeting to decide whether we should support David Bussau establish a branch (in the UK) of what would become Opportunity International (one of the world's largest networks of micro-finance institutions). 

It was clear that some trustees were struggling with the notion of lending money to poor people (at interest) and one of them crystallised the concern by declaring, 'This is Thatcherism' (It was the late 1980s and Muhammed Yunus Nobel Prize was more than a decade away). Neither my chairman nor I (as the director) could thing of a reply. We were stumped and could see our cherished project slide away from us without the necessary consensus to go forward.

But in stepped Canon Eric James, the trust's chaplain, who no one could accuse of Thatcherism.  Indeed as his obituary notes:

 "He was a prime mover behind the Church of England's controversial 1985 report Faith in the City, which indicted the effects of Thatcherism in inner-city areas, and …

David's resurrection

A combination of an innate sensitivity and over the counter amphetamines (designed to relieve nose congestion) tipped the poet, David Gascoyne, into the nether regions of mania and breakdown: once in Paris and once in London he was to be arrested trying to bring his message of impending apocalypse and hoped for global redemption to the respective country's head of state (Charles de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth II respectively). For this he found himself sectioned in mental hospitals.

The last stay was in a hospital on the Isle of Wight, where he was then living, alone, in the house his parents' death had left him with.

Enter Judy, an unhappily married woman, wife of a vet, with an interest in literature, coming to read poetry to the inmates. One poem she chose, describing it as difficult, was by David. After she had finished reading it, a rather shambolic, though well-dressed, tall, stooped man, touched her arm and told her, 'I am David Gascoyne'. 'Of course, you ar…

A Surreal life

He had published his first volume of poems at sixteen and had written what remains a standard introduction to surrealism at eighteen; and, now, a decade after his death, he has a deservedly comprehensive and illuminating biography: 'Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the poet David Gascoyne' by Robert Fraser.

Born in 1916, I have reached the gathering clouds of the Second World War and Gascoyne at 23 already has five well-reviewed volumes behind him but is worried about his productivity. He is right to be so because the mental frailty that haunted his middle years is slowly becoming apparent. It would have a devastating impact on his ability to work, silencing for long periods this most imaginatively gifted of poets.

I keep being struck by realising: I knew that person, as I knew Gascoyne himself, if briefly. So, for example, Gascoyne is described taking a translation of, the 'father' of Surrealism, Andre Breton's work to the publisher, Faber and Faber, where he …

Greek fiddles

"It was a grave mistake to hold this election in such an atmosphere and time of crisis and before the economy was stabilized," said Keridis. " This result couldn't come at a worse time for Greece."

This quotation from a political scientist at the University of Athens demonstrates precisely Europe's predicament.

It has a superficial truth - the election has destabilised Greece - the results strike me as a negative outpouring, based primarily on fear.

But, at a deeper level, they reveal the deep arrogance of the elite - that they are the only ones capable of dealing with the crisis. They will deal with the crisis but without the inconvenience of seeking any democratic legitimacy. This would require creating the conditions of hope that would elicit that popular support and channelling it in a positive direction. Since they are incapable of this, indeed incapable of seeing the need for this, they wend their technocratic ways over the edge, into the abyss. Mean…

Confucius and elections

The rectification of government begins in the rectification of names said Confucius. Language is objective or we could not speak said Socrates. Both recognized an intimate connection between truth telling and language striking the world aright.

What then does the abuse of language in everyday life do to the body politic? It undermines it in subtle yet corrosive ways.

I telephone a company. Their line tells me that they are experiencing an unusually high number of calls. The only problem with the message is that this is always the case. The high number of calls is never unusual. In truth, they do not employ sufficient handlers of calls: period. Yet they provide a convenient lie. We meet this repeatedly: it becomes part of the acknowledged fabric of daily life, barely worth a mention, it becomes woven into our expectations of how the world is.

Likewise the company here is telling us indirectly that while pretending to care for us the customer (indeed that is what the department we are …

Romantic possibilities

'Romanticism' is another excellent contribution to Phaidon's series on Art and Ideas. It is a difficult concept to define, so wisely David Blayney Brown does not try! His chapters are thematic and demonstrative rather than definitional. To quote Wittgenstein, 'Romanticism' was a form of life in which overlapping strands shared a family resemblance - you recognise it when you see it but cannot capture that seeing in a neat, orderly category.

Romanticism shaped our view of the artist as a vocated individual summoned by genius who projected themselves into a hoped for future or a gilded past to judge (and criticise) the unsatisfactory present. It was a present, the opening of the nineteenth century, that saw an encroaching, and dehumanising, industrialisation, so it exalted nature, the exotic and the 'other' worldly. It confronted the reason of Enlightenment with a renewed, personalised sense of feeling. Reason paradoxically had given rise to the frenzied mob…