This is a novella I wrote many years ago, included here as it was the genesis of much of the 2nd Truth . . .
“I could not speak and my eyes failed
I was neither living nor dead
and I knew nothing
looking in to the heart of light
piers end, nights end
the moonlit waves
offer no comfort.
let’s look anyway
. . . . . . . . . . There are nine 9 holes in the boat.
2. I AM GOING TO DIE
6. THE TRAIL
8. WHAT DO YOU WANT?
9. LET’S LOOK ANYWAY
SAM was alone. Walking across the Downs he listened to the squelching sounds made by his wet shoes. His eyes fell into a kind of trance, staring at the grass turned to silver by the bright moonlight. He stopped, felt the damp creeping between his toes, felt his resolve slipping. He lurched forward, as if a sudden movement could surprise his fear and leave it behind. Down the hill, past the Zoo, up to the Observatory with its camera obscura. He paused at the top and looked down to the Bridge, lit up like a Christmas tree, spanning the dark gorge. Swallowing his nausea, he descended.
Sam stood in front of an old iron sign, which told him that each pedestrian, cycle, cart, carriage or animal must have a ticket. He usually found it amusing that the tickets were still only 2p, as if he had gone back in time. Not funny this night. Sam bought a ticket from the sleepy attendant, who went through the ritual of issuing it one-handed, with the other he clutched tightly, a red thermos flask. Sam walked slowly on to the Bridge. Signs told him things. He could talk to the Samaritans in confidence, speeds restricted to 15mph. Another sign informed him of the man who built the bridge, and when he built it. He passed a huge brick tower, one of four that held the massive steel cables, suspending the bridge across the gorge. Mounted on the tower, a camera, with the words “Focus” on its side. Hoping that he did not look suspicious, Sam walked more quickly till he reached the centre of the bridge, where the main cables dipped and met the road.
He thought, how is it that moonlight can make a city seem quieter? Who gives a shit, another of his thought-voices answered. It’s too late to worry about all that now.
No traffic sound came up from the Portway far below. Sam closed his eyes and listened. It was quiet. The hiss of the breeze in the cables, very faint traffic sounds drifting from the city centre, a swishing sound coming up from the river. He leaned over and looked down to where, 300ft below, the river currents darkly crossed each other, occasionally flashing a murky silver as the moon touched lapping water. He shivered.
It’s a beautiful night, he thought. I’m glad, it should be a fine night. What difference does that make?! It’s appropriate. I must do it soon, the cameras will notice me if I don’t move, they will send for the police. He reached in to his jacket pocket for the letter he intended to leave behind. Is it ok? he thought. Is it too dramatic? Could it be better phrased? No, no, it’s fine, come on, just do it. Jump you bastard, leg over and down you go. Come on, do it now, what is the matter? Jump! Climb on to the barrier, push yourself out in to the dark. Jump! In seconds it will be all over, gone…..
Sam’s mind wandered all over the place, random thoughts, disassociation, drifting nervously. He thought of his little flat in Westbury Park, to the details of this, his last day, which for all his efforts, did not seem like a last day at all. He realised that his thoughts had drifted, and feared last minute hesitations, of becoming the “man on the ledge”. And now it was happening. He wished he had killed himself on one of the countless other times when despair had flattened him, sucked him dry and lifeless.
Come on arsehole, get it over with!
Quickly now, quickly, what is the problem, he thought. It can’t just be fear, I don’t believe that. All I have to do, climb over this barrier and jump. There will be no pain, I’ll be unconscious – dead – when I hit the water. I am not scared of dying, I’m not, I want extinction! What is it, what is it?
He never would have guessed, not in a million years. Sam felt ridiculous. Like many people who do not care for themselves he had a strong hidden vanity, the vanity of those who feel ignored and misused by the world. He looked out across the gorge at the rooftops of Clifton, saw the river bending away under the fly-over, passing the ugly bonded warehouses. The orange street lights of the flyover shone in a parody of the cold stars. A deep misery came over him, a weird combination of panic and paralysis, an impossible alliance that froze him to the spot. He truly wanted an ending, dreaded the “man on the ledge” possibility, but could not jump. The more he oscillated in his thoughts the more he froze, a vortex of immobility. A choking sensation began to grip Sam’s throat, as a gust of wind shook the bridge and sent a shiver up his spine. Salt entered his mouth, he realised that he was crying, and he dropped the letter in surprise. The paralysis eased off.
Sam bent down to pick up the letter, and saw a pair of green and purple trainers about fifteen feet away. Startled, he straightened up to see an old man standing there looking at him, though he had heard no approaching footsteps. Conscious of his tears Sam wiped them away roughly with his sleeve. After what seemed an age the old man spoke, his voice firm but crackly:
“You’ve missed something”.
Sam was still too surprised to respond, and just stared dumbly. The old man spoke again, an edge of impatience in his voice:
“I said, you have missed something”.
Sam coughed and swallowed, then managed to speak:
“I don’t understand”.
“Well that’s obvious”.
A little piqued but recovering himself enough Sam examined the strange-looking old man. And he was old indeed, wrinkled and completely bald, and had no eyebrows. He was Sam’s height, but hunched and thinner, wearing a much-too-big black cardigan over an outrageous Hawaiian shirt, ablaze with reds and yellows. Black baggy trousers went down to meet the green and purple trainers. His hunched posture, carapace-like cardigan, hooded eyes and wrinkly neck made him seem like some big tortoise standing upright on hind-legs. But not a friendly tortoise. The old man’s face was expressionless and his dark eyes were hard. He showed no further sign of speech or movement and his continued stare made Sam look away, feeling guilty like some school-boy caught by the teacher. Sam hid his embarrassment by speaking, his voice quiet and strained:
“Are you from the Samaritans or…..”
“No, but I have been waiting for you”.
“Me?….. Me? But you don’t know me”.
“True, but I knew someone would come. You’ll do I guess.”
And with that, the old man turned and walked away. Sam was too stunned to speak at first but then called out to the receding figure:
“Hey! Just a minute. Aren’t you going to try and stop me, where are you going, what are you doing?”
“I am going to Cabot Tower and no, I do not plan to stop you”, said the old man over his shoulder.
“But you said you had been waiting for me. Me! Why – I mean – how-come?”
The old man was still walking away, Sam found himself shouting:
“What is it! What do you want. You come up to me on this fucking bridge, you stop…… you interrupt me, and now you are going to fuck off, just like that?”
The old man stopped and turned round, he too had to shout now:
“Yes, just like this. But you can come too if you want. Got anything better to do?…. Remember what I said”.
And he continued on his way, leaving Sam clutching his letter, mouth wide open.
If Sam felt bad before, that was nothing compared to this. After all I’ve been through, he thought. Now this shit! As usual his thoughts began to interrupt themselves:
Why can’t I just go in peace?
But you weren’t going at all were you?
I would have gone….
Bullshit! Dithering as always.
I would have, I must go!
So do it now, right now……. see, you can’t.
I can, I must!
Shit… Shit shit shit!
Sam began pounding his fists on the railing, hurting his hands, till from nowhere a new thought came:
What did he say?
He said nothing that matters now.
No, he said…. what was it? You have lost… no. You’ve missed something. I have missed something? What does he mean?
He’s winding you up. So what? He’s a fruitcake out of the local bin, or an old queen on the make. He probably…
No! Something more…….
Curiosity got the better of Sam and shaded all his thoughts. He began to tap the railing with his hand, not noticing the aches. A strange kind of excitement came over him, a mess of feelings he could barely register as they whirled around him. He held the letter up to the moonlight, and after one last hesitation, screwed it up and hurled it out in to the air. He ran after the old man, who had not gone far, and was already turning to meet Sam as he ran down Sion Hill. Feeling suddenly both shy and angry Sam shouted at the old man:
“Why have you stopped? You’re going to Cabot Tower aren’t you?”
“I wanted to see if you would make a big splash”.
“Oh great. Thanks a bunch”.
But the mood had gone too far, and flipped over. Without any warning they were both suddenly laughing, Sam’s a loud braying, the old man snickering, his shoulders jerking up an down. Sam could not stop, fresh tears stinging his eyes as he slumped on to a nearby damp bench. Eventually quiet returned. The old man stared at the Bridge. Sam felt instantly depressed, putting his head in his hands he sighed, and spoke:
“Who are you then…”
Sam looked up:
“Who or what are you? If you are not Samaritans, are you a social worker or something? Or did you slip out when no one was looking? If you are cruising you are in for a disappointment and if you tell me your name is Clarence I shall certainly kill you”.
“Oh dear, a smart-arse. Never mind. No I am not a social worker, a senile escapee, a Hollywood angel or any kind of angel. I gave up sex a long time ago”.
“So what were you doing on the bridge? How is it you were waiting for me?”
“I told you, I was waiting for someone, it turned out to be you.”
“Yes, but how? Why?”
“I cannot tell you everything right now, it would be meaningless to you, lets just say that I must soon keep an appointment, before that happens I must help someone. That someone turns out to be you”.
“Because I was just there?”
“Go with that for now, but the description “just there” is not right.”
“Do you go up there regularly? To save the jumpers?”
“No, you are my first and last”.
Sam’s mood was changing again as they spoke, it was as if the misery had bottomed out in to a wide sadness, a kind of weariness that was deflating. There was a pause, before Sam spoke again:
“Up there, on the bridge, I was going to…… I still might jump, and soon….. But now, well, I feel………..”.
Sam lapsed in to silence and shyness. The old man looked at Sam, and spoke softly:
They strolled on down the hill, an old man with slow steady steps, and a young man, tense, looking round, stuffing his hands in to his pockets, elbows sticking out at awkward angles.
THEY entered the moonshadow of the Avon Gorge Hotel and turned left in to Caledonia Place. A terrace of large Victorian houses overlooked a small park, ornate iron street-lamps cast yellow pools of light, adding to the old feel of the street. A mountain-bike chained up looked out of place. Sam wondered how the iron balconies, original by the look of them, had survived both world wars. He felt drained and empty, and weird, walking in the small hours with a total stranger. Anything to avoid killing myself, he thought. His curiosity woke up:
“Ok, you want to keep it cryptic, but tell me something about why you have to help someone. And what did you mean, I have missed something”.
The old man paused, and turned to face Sam:
“I am not going to tell you, yet, why I have to help someone, you, as it happens. But the help is there; let’s say, I have something you need.”
“Oh yes, what’s that?”
“A way in to your own life”.
“A way in to my own life, what is that supposed to mean?”
“For now, we might call it a survival tactic”.
“A survival tactic. And what is this survival tactic?”
“I can’t just tell you, there are ways of doing these things, rules if you like, though I prefer to think of them as understandings. For us to go further, you have to ask me for help.”
“I have to ask first? I don’t know if I am that bothered”.
Sam could not keep the derision out of his voice, for the feeling came as they talked that he would play the old boy along, perhaps it would be amusing, pass the time till he could think of another way to off himself. But these smug feelings evaporated as he saw the look on the old man’s face. He was leaning forward intently, waiting for Sam’s response. Sam felt as if he was being tested, as if something important hung on his words.
Somehow the atmosphere had changed between them, somehow the old fart had engineered some tension, though Sam could not figure out how he had done it. Sam decided to equivocate:
“Couldn’t we just walk to the Tower? Do we really need all this mystery stuff?”
The old man leaned in closer to Sam, and the feelings of disquiet became even stronger, he could not understand it. One moment he was humouring the old man, and the next he felt as if his life was on the line.
The old man spoke, almost whispering:
“Would you, now, be happy with just that?”
The last shred of Sam’s scorn vanished like a wisp of smoke in a gale. At that instant he knew, without any fancy reductions, crafty evasions, or any of his battery of well-worn excuses, that he did want something. Although what that might be he had not the slightest clue. He sighed, and faced the old man:
“Ok, ok. Tell me how to survive”.
The old man cupped his hand behind his ear in a marvelous parody of infirmity, and in a quivering voice said:
“Eh? What did you say?”
Sam let out a deeper sigh, but chuckled as he replied:
“Tell me how to survive……….. please”.
If Sam was expecting a look of triumph or mockery on the old man’s face, he did not get it. The old man just smiled, and perhaps even looked a little sad. He held out his hand for Sam to shake, and announced in a loud clear voice:
“My name is Frank, pleased to meet you”.
Frank’s hand-shake was surprisingly firm, and despite the cool of the night, was hot to the touch. Frank strolled off, Sam following after, shuffling his feet, noting that he could only hear his own foot-falls echoing along the terraced buildings. Again unhappy with the silence Sam spoke:
“So what have I missed?”
“That’s obvious, you were trying to kill yourself and making a mess of it. There is a time and a place to kill yourself, a necessary mood. You did not have it. So you missed something”.
“Yes but what?”
“Your whole life stupid!”
“What!…. What do you know, you don’t know anything about me….”
“Yes I do.”
Frank stopped, looked the still smouldering Sam up and down, slowly and carefully, then continued:
“You are careful about what you wear, I think your outfit was chosen with deliberation, consciously or unconsciously, and this is what it says to me. It’s all casual, but newish, well fitting, clean. On your belt loop there is the remains of a dry cleaning docket, you dry-clean your jeans, that shows a marked fastidiousness. Levis too, not imitation or cheaper brand. Black leather jacket, but not a biker’s, old and worn in, but expensive once. Black leather, symbol of rebellion, but yours is a cautious statement. Political badges on your lapel. Expensive but sensible walking shoes, darkened with dubbin, you look after them. A stud in your left ear, so probably not gay. Not so young, I guess you are in your middle-thirties. Your body is tense, structurally defensive, you have a permanent frown. Your accent is southern English, urban, middle class, but you lapse in to working class when you are angry. I would guess you live near here in Clifton, or perhaps Westbury Park, you are not trendy enough for St Pauls or Montpelier. So put all this together with the fact that you are inappropriately trying to kill yourself in a very dramatic manner and what do we have?”
Frank paused and walked away, holding his chin in an exaggerated gesture of deep concentration. He then slapped his hands together and pointed at Sam:
“You are not terminally ill. Not a jilted lover either, too cold and intellectual for that. But you do have deep emotional frustrations discernable in your rigid posture. I think you are a “meanings-man”. Everything must make sense, and be neat and rational, you are a failed philosopher. You have been up and down the aisles of the soul-searchers supermarket for years and you finally get to the check-out counter with an empty basket. You cannot tolerate a life without meaning, which insults your vanity, so you decide not to live at all! But this would not be enough, no, there must be more, something to really tip the balance. What does the meanings-man usually lack? Human comfort. Yes you probably demand too much of your friends and lovers, you partially reject them in the name of being “honest” and then feel vindicated when they reject you. This comedy has probably gone on since college, you must have gone to college, your despair has that kind of smell. What else? Anything else? Oh yes, the gloss of career hopes wear off in the mid-thirties, so job troubles too perhaps? ……. There! How did I do?”
Sam held a cynical distance at first, but as Frank went on he felt more and more stung. A huge anger began building up and he started rehearsing his most cutting remarks, when they fizzled and vanished. The old fart’s right, thought Sam, damn it, how can he be so close? And Sam saw that he could do almost anything, even wring Frank’s thin papery neck, than give any real thought to his guesses.
“Well, come on, how did I do?”
Frank was not gloating, or mocking, or revelling in his insights. If anything, he still looked sad. However, despite his new mood Sam could not find it in his heart to be anything but angry, though his words came out hollow when he replied:
“Very clever Sherlock. Are you a shrink, as well as an angel of mercy? Yes, I suppose you were near enough….”
“It’s not so difficult when you concentrate. Come on, try me”.
Frank stepped back and opened his arms, Sam chuckled at the silly expectant expression on the old man’s face. Sam seemed embarrassed, so Frank spoke again:
“Go on, try. Concentrate. Take everything in to account, physical appearance, age, mannerisms, make a few deductions and then add the time and place.”
“Ok, ok. Well, you’re old, Christ knows how old, early seventies perhaps. You seem fit, though I guess you have had alopecia or somesuch, to loose all your hair and eyebrows. Your clothes are a weird mixture, but not old. They are not hand-me-downs, you bought them yourself. You like bright colours, but off-set by dark things. All your clothes are loose, but well-fitting, so being comfortable is important to you. Yes, hence the trainers, I have never seen any old person wearing trainers. You have a tattoo just visible above your wrist, it looks very old, all faded blue, so not there for fashionable reasons. I shall take a leap. Merchant Navy! You are not uptight enough to be ex-Royal Navy. You speak with just a hint of a Scottish accent, a little like….. what’s his name… Sean Connery. And you live abroad….”
“Good. How did you get that last part?”
“Old people don’t dress like that here, but I have been to the States, so…..”
“Very good. Not so hard eh? But what about the time and place?”
“Alright, ok. Give me a moment.”
Sam, warming to his task, paced up and down for a while, taking the occasional glance at Frank, who was grinning broadly. Then Sam stopped, grinning himself now, he began:
“Right, here it goes. What would make an old man, who is obviously not short of a bob or two, who is – or seems – to be quite compos mentis, who is not – he says – trying to get laid, wander round Clifton Bridge in the small hours? You would not answer my questions, but you did hint at some kind of appointment you have, that you must help someone first. This way of helping someone seems a bit drastic, so maybe this is some kind of weird atonement?….. No, that does not fit…. Has to be something personal…. Did you try to kill yourself once? On the bridge, like me? Did a strange old fart come and interrupt you? There! How did I do?”
Frank clapped his hands and seemed genuinely pleased:
“You did well enough, though you are not right on the specifics….”
“What are the specifics?”
“You don’t need to know. You didn’t tell me yours, you don’t need to know mine, especially as it is not me that was stupidly trying to kill himself so ineffectively.”
“Look! I don’t need you or anyone.”
Anger was making Sam shake as he pointed at Frank.
“I certainly don’t need any late night bald old weirdo.”
And with that Sam turned and walked off. But Frank called out, not in the least bit angry, stopping him in mid-stride:
“You need someone. Perhaps not this bald old weirdo, but someone. You do not know your way in.”
Sam stood still, facing back towards the bridge. He closed his eyes and tried to make sense of his feelings, which were jumping around all over the place. It is true, he admitted to himself, I do need someone or something. And with this admission, his anger, which had been driving all the other feelings like some furious animal on a treadmill, withered away. He also realised that when he had asked Frank how to survive, he had not meant it. What a mess, he thought, what am I doing here? It’s 2am, I am suicidal, I am walking through Bristol with a total stranger, asking him to save my life. But even as he thought this to himself, it did not ring true, it began to look like an act, a posture. Am I suicidal?
You tried to jump off a bridge didn’t you? What’s that?
Yes, but really, do I want to die? Seems too ………
Oh sure, life’s just wonderful, go back tomorrow and tell your boss, sorry! Just joking. And phone Jacky up and tell her you didn’t mean to call her a tight-arsed superficial bitch…….
And while you are at it why not try and get back all your savings you donated to Greenpeace……
Oh shit… Hang on. All that’s just trying to make it real, it isn’t really real. Why didn’t I jump?
Because you’re chicken-shit.
No! That doesn’t explain……
And round and round went his thoughts, the very process itself making him bone tired. He turned to look at Frank, who was just standing under a lamp-post, smiling. And Sam saw what he was doing, just explaining away something he could not handle. He saw then that he could not accept the things that Frank had said about him. He could not, would not, look at them for even a second. The suspicious nature of his avoidance hit home. He had always done this, listened to other people and then constructed his own versions of what they had said and why they said it, and then – everso subtly – edited out anything that contradicted his picture of himself, the clever young man. Why can’t I let go? he thought. There was no answer.
“Ok”, Sam sighed. “What do you mean, I don’t know the way in?”
“The way in to your own life, of course”.
Frank strolled on, his snail-pace causing his arms to sway gently as he moved. Sam adjusted his pace beside Frank, moving sideways every now and then to avoid lamp-posts. At first he thought Frank walked slowly because he was old, but on reflection, it seemed that everything Frank did was deliberate. Walking this slow was a new experience for Sam, he felt himself slowing down generally. He looked sideways at Frank, who ignored him. Sam found himself wondering about the old man. Despite Frank’s telling insights and calm manner he could not quite take him seriously . The whole thing seemed too unlikely, even so, he now wanted to hear Frank’s ideas. As if on cue, Frank broke the silence:
“What we shall talk of will not seem so strange, the ideas themselves appear in many different forms, in many different places. Have you done any psychotherapy? No? Shame, never mind. If something sounds a bit Zen, or a bit psychoanalytical, try not to latch on to the label, try not to see this as an intellectual exercise. It’s personal, very personal.”
This intrigued Sam, who considered himself a modest expert on Eastern teachings and their Western off-spring. The thought came to him that perhaps Frank was not a crack-pot after all, though this thought came and went without denting his cynical facade. Sam was curious now alright, but did not know that Frank had finally hooked him, following another one of his shrewd guesses. As soon as Sam opened his mouth Frank knew it was about to begin. Sam, of course, missed the particular smile that appeared on Frank’s face. Sam just opened his mouth:
“Frank, I am interested to hear you talk of these things. I, too, have read something of these traditions and…”
“SHUT UP!” Frank was pointing at the startled Sam. “You can ask questions but we are going to establish some ground rules. First, I don’t give a shit about your opinions, what you have read or what you think. I am interested in your honest questions about what I say, these I welcome, but the rest, scrap it! So think before you speak. Second, you must not ask any questions about me. It’s you we are going to talk about, anything else is an irrelevance. Do you understand?”
Sam was speechless. No one had talked like that to him since he was at school. Anger flooded back, but vanished just as quick. He experienced a new feeling. His normal stock responses were all there in potential, any number, all lined up like cars at a traffic light, all raring to go. Sam saw himself cutting Frank dead with some caustic remark, saw shame and regret on Frank’s face, saw himself walking nobly off. But he did none of these. What he felt was a curious kind of wistful nothingness, in which his normal feelings floated, and instead of them arriving like reflexes, like bullies elbowing their way in to action, they just floated. Objects. Which became just options. Frank, guessing Sam’s mood – Sam did have a spectacularly stupid expression on his face – said in a gentler tone:
“Do you understand?”
And Sam heard himself meekly say:
“Let’s walk on a bit.”
They turned left in to Princess Victoria Street, where the Gateway supermarket glared bright green, even late at night. The Clifton library looked to be the only building that might remember Princess Victoria. Frank stopped and examined some special offers in the window of Oddbins. Sam felt stoned, that was the nearest he could get to describing his spacey mood. He was surprised to find that Frank was talking to him, he had some difficulty focusing on Franks words.
“…….so I shall not mention it again. Just bear in mind that any teaching is only a technique, nothing more. The crucial thing is to become aware of yourself without using your mind…..”
Frank paused when he saw the spaced-out look on Sam’s face. He placed both his hands on Sam’s shoulders and fixed him with an intense gaze, speaking very slowly:
Frank looked a little longer in to Sam’s cloudy brown eyes, then strolled off, speaking quickly, as if to himself:
“The best teachings are those which have their own planned obsolescence, a teaching which self-destructs when it has served its purpose. Like a boat that sinks, you use it to take you out to sea, where it sinks leaving you to swim under your own power. Down it goes, leaving not a trace to be turned in to rules, regulations, descriptions, prescriptions and dogma.”
Frank stopped and stared up at a street light:
“I like that…. No, not the lamp, the idea that the teaching is a boat that sinks. I think that’s what I shall call it, the boat that sinks. No, that’s no good…. Nine Holes in the Boat. Yes, I like that, Nine Holes in the Boat.”
Sam, now more awake, looked at Frank as realisation dawned:
“Do you mean, you’re making this up, as we walk along?”
“Of course. I am making it up, but I am not inventing anything. What I shall say comes straight from here.”
Frank touched his heart with both hands. Despite his new mood of openness Sam could not stop a look of derision sliding across his face. Frank, not a bit put out, just laughed and said:
“Perhaps I would have more respect if I was a Zen master, with a thousand years of tradition behind me? Too bad, it’s only me, a late night bald old weirdo. But I have something. Do you want it?”
It took a split-second for Sam to answer, but in that split-second he saw more clearly than before how his whole life had been one of evasion and manipulation of his fortified defences, rationalising his timidity. He had never done anything on trust:
“Good. But you must accept the ground rules. There is no great mystical ploy here, we are narrowing our concentration to just you, ok?”
Sam noticed that Frank’s manner had changed, it was not just that he had shouted at him, or treated him like a kid, Frank now spoke with complete authority. Part of Sam hated this, but his reaction seemed so old hat, because Frank did not seem like a Headmaster or any other such figure. Sam’s thoughts spaced out again, it was less than half an hour ago that he stood on the bridge! He flinched as Frank slapped him on the back:
“Concentrate! You must find a way in to your own life. Of course, really, you are inside your own life already. But it doesn’t seem like it, either to you or to me. Another way to put it would be this: you must wake up! You’re asleep, having a nightmare. Asleep in a burning building, you must wake up and leave before it is too late. And yet you carry on sleeping, carry on suffering. Why is that? There are a million, zillion explanations of the human condition, none of which we have time for. But I must stress this now, personal truth comes from experience, not comprehension. You feel truth, you cannot grasp it with your mind. And if you needed any more proof, look at you, clever young college fellow, already in his mid-thirties, so smart he’s walking round with his head up his arse!”
Sam felt a flash of annoyance, but ignoring Frank’s observation and subsequent chuckling, he spoke, becoming instantly aware of his condescending tone:
“You are making a clear distinction then, between mind, as some kind of biological super-computer and soul or spirit as a realm of feelings?”
“NO! It is exactly that kind of thing, that exactly, which you must let go of. What you just did was pull out an explanation , which sounded so wise, so rational. But what really happened, was a part of your mind trotting out a description for another part of your mind to flatter itself with understanding. Like two kids in a garden, your mind is, a garden surrounded by a high wall. And these two kids are telling each other stories about the world outside, only they have never seen it! Glimpses through the garden gate, which they elaborate and elaborate. One of the key things from the sinking boat is to see through this process.”
Sam was straight in there:
“So, you’re advocating a kind of hedonism, a sort of….”
“STOP! You’ve done it again, dummy! Let go of your cleverness and labels. I am not offering you a theoretical model. I am offering you a mechanism, a technique. If I say anything that seems like an explanation it will not be a picture of reality, it will only be a verbal trick to highlight the technique. Don’t…..”
Frank paused, staring at Sam’s eyes, he continued in a slower more patient way:
“Don’t try and impress me. Nothing you can say is going to impress me.”
A huge sadness descended on Sam, once again Frank’s words had found their mark. He became bewildered as the usual parade of excuses, denials, and explanations leapt to attention. A rush of feelings swept through him, like express trains blasting through a small station, one after the other. His head hurt, he felt dizzy, silver flashes appeared at the edge of his vision. A huge jolt snapped him out of it. Frank had slapped him hard on the back again, causing Sam to scowl angrily. They walked on, Frank’s slap had jolted him back to some sense of things, though he still felt light-headed and detached, and he still could not believe what was happening to him. Frank continued:
“So, the first technique, or hole in the boat if you like, is to find the way in. In the old, more rural days, this would often be called the Nose-Ring. The background to this is simple. Many teachings demand fierce techniques of punitive self-discipline, based on the idea that the self is worthless and must be thrust aside and transcended. Well, you can flog yourself, or sit in a cave and stare at the wall for ten years if you want to, but you don’t need to do this. To say that the self is worthless is just the other side of the same coin as making the self paramount. But something must be done about the self, for it is a tyrant and must be encouraged to let go.
The notion of the Nose-Ring is quite good, and comes form the idea of an obstinate bull. It is very difficult to move an obstinate bull. You can lasso it by the neck and pull, you can push it from behind, kick it, scare it, light a fire under it’s arse, whatever. But if it has a ring through it’s nose you can lead it as quietly as you like. To find the nose-ring of a bull is easy, even you , city-boy, could tell the difference between a bull’s nose and arse. But how do you find the nose-ring of the self, to lead it gently and skilfully towards letting go? This analogy is ok, but we need something a bit more modern. How about ignition? A car is a wonderful thing, but it’s useless if you can’t start it. One small function enables all the other features of the car, transport, speed, comfort, warmth, access, to happen.
As I guessed before, you have been up and down the aisles of the seekers supermarket, dipped in to everything from A to Z, from Alexander Technique to Zen meditation, but nothing has engaged you. Ignition has not occurred. As it happens, ignition is not so difficult, it only becomes difficult where the teaching has a strong form, well established “do’s and don’ts”, dogma. Ignition gets missed because individuals are required to identify with a teachings’ ideology, or to put it another way, faith is more important than experimentation. Enough of that, we have to find your ignition. And here’s how, I want you to think about fear. Fear….. But not just any fear. This must be fear without any cause, I don’t want to hear about being nearly run over, waiting to see the headmaster, falling in the deep end, I don’t want anything like that. I want real fear, that came from nowhere.” Frank opened his arms, as if to emphasise the ‘nowhere’.
“I was in a car crash once, rushed to hospital….”
“No good, no good. That’s just trauma. Think, concentrate. I want real fear, with no apparent cause.”
They turned right in to Regent Street, and walked downhill, passing the Pizza Provencale, where Sam used to go with Jacky. He realised that he was not thinking very hard. He dredged his memory and found something:
“I took a lot of acid years ago, there were a few really bad…..”
“No good, fear probably driven by paranoia. Try again.”
They paused for a moment, while Frank looked at oil-paintings in the window of a shop called Dahne, he seemed really interested. They strolled on, passing a barber shop called Aldoes, which had just one chair, Sam could not resist it:
“One chair too many for you, eh Frank? And sir does not need anything for the weekend.”
“Any more bad jokes like that and I will help you jump. Now, any progress?”
“No…. well, sort of, maybe…..”
“Don’t play games, I know you have something. Spit it out.”
“Well. Kind of hard to describe…..”
“Go on, sounds promising.”
“The real reason I got in to meditation and alternative things was because I wanted to feel as good as I did on drugs without taking damaging chemicals. After a while I got in to the teachings for their own sake. Looking back I guess I was searching for something, as you so cleverly pointed out. I liked meditation. I stopped doing it because…..”
Sam stopped and stared, he was eye level with a flower bed. Beautiful forget-me-nots exploded over the brickwork, hanging down in profusion. He realised they had left the shops behind, had walked in to Lower Clifton Road. He also realised that he had never talked to anyone about this.
“Try, we don’t have that much time.”
It crossed his mind to ask why time was short, but he let it go. He suddenly realised that he was quite excited at the thought of talking. He dived in:
“Meditation had been good, I felt I had been “getting somewhere”, though I knew this attitude was wrong. That thing of meditation being about letting go of competition, of just doing it without being attached to any goals and so on. But it made me feel good and I wanted more, I felt peaceful and purposeful, I got in to it, you know…….. Anyway, I was on holiday with a friend in France, a really remote place in the Cevennes, and I mean really remote. We were 20 Ks from the nearest main road, 7Ks off the nearest through road, at the end of a valley in an almost deserted village. It was quiet, and I mean really quiet. I loved it, I wanted somewhere special, to go further in to meditation. My friend was in to her own thing, writing, and we soon set up routines.
We had the same routines everyday, times of being together and lots of time being just separate and quiet. I set up a practice of meditating early morning, late afternoon and before sleep….. At first I was disappointed, because nothing special was happening, I knew it was wrong wanting something special, but I did anyway. After a while the quiet of the place began to get to me. I had never been anywhere so profoundly silent. I cannot really describe it, even now. Natural sounds, the wind in the trees, a sheep dog barking across the valley, my friend making a cup of tea, my own breathing somehow added to the quiet. These sounds, which were definitely sounds, made the quiet more silent. See, I can’t describe it…..”
Sam looked around for inspiration, and saw in the distance, Cabot Tower, high on it’s hill. He took a deep breath and released it, and then looked at Frank. Sam became aware of a strange pressure building up inside him. With another deep breath he continued:
“It was as if the quietness had a texture. As if, I could reach out my hand and touch it. I expected it to have a tactile quality, soft, velvety, like being under water. It felt like that, velvet pressure. I liked it at first, I felt that perhaps I was getting somewhere, though the feelings seemed to happen most outside meditation. And then, it happened during meditation, it got strange…..”
“It just won’t seem much, it’ll come out all flat and…”
“Don’t worry, just do it.”
“Meditation itself had been good but not extra special like I hoped. Then that afternoon, I got my wish. The quietness, which had been getting stranger, became really intense. It was not just an uncomfortable absence of sound, not some city-dwellers maladjustment. The quiet became a real thing. I had some way-out things happen on acid, but that was acid. This was different, no flashback stuff, this was very, very different. I felt suspended in this thick heavy sea of something, I was sat crossed legged on the bed, eyes shut, but I couldn’t move, that was when I got scared, I was rigid. I did not feel that I was held, or forced or anything, but I was immobile, paralysed, and I really wanted to get up and move around. It was dark, no light at all, I couldn’t open my eyes.
The fear became much stronger. I felt myself receding or shrinking, and I heard this thin far off voice, shouting, “come back, it’s a mistake, come back!” Then I became aware of this other person. Don’t ask me how I knew he was there, because it was completely dark, but I knew, I felt him with total certainty. He was very powerful, I just knew he was immensely strong, he wasn’t evil or anything, but he was grim, yet lighthearted as well. Somehow I knew he was very purposeful, dangerous and capable of anything. And I heard that voice, now tiny and far-off, screaming, “that’s not me, that’s not me, that’s not me,” over and over again. With a shock I realised that I was disappearing, and this other person was getting stronger, I could feel him laughing…… My body must have convulsed, because I found myself on all fours at the bottom of the bed, staring at he floor. I never meditated again.”
“Oh really”, said Sam, his sarcasm returning.
“Yes. It is a very auspicious start to our conversation. It means you are a listener.”
“Terrific………… what’s a listener?”
“Sam, I want you to say some more about the quietness, especially when it was strong, when you couldn’t move”.
Sam suddenly felt tired and propped himself up against some railings. They were at the top of a short flight of steps leading down past a huge old red sandstone wall. The street-lights made the wall glisten. His mind went blank and he looked at Frank stupidly.
“Sam? Can you hear that quietness now?”
Instantly Sam knew what Frank was getting at, despite the question being contradictory. His pulse quickened and he had to close his eyes. Six years, he thought, and it still scares the shit out of me.
“Sam, can you hear it now?”
Sam snapped open his eyes and found himself pointing at Frank with a shaking finger and faltering voice:
“You….. you know about it?”
“Yes, but you tell me about it”.
“It’s not just me going insane?”
“No….. so speak”.
Sam began to shake violently, he gripped the railings firmly as his legs felt like jelly. And there was fear, not as bad as in France, but a strong shadow of it, fear of madness and loosing control. But this time there was something else, a kind of fascination, even though he was shaking with fear and felt like death warmed up, he was intrigued, he was not alone, somebody else knew about it, whatever it might be. Frank was looking at him and he realised that an answer was expected:
“It’s a pressure, like a lull before an enormous thunder-storm. It’s uncomfortable, like when you are holding your breath for as long as you can. It pushes me somehow, and this is the weirdest part, it is questioning me, not with words, but I feel quite clearly that it wants something……… What do you mean, I’m a listener?”
“Some people listen. Some look, some sing, some dance, some hurt themselves, some loose themselves playing a musical instrument, or in danger, or in helping others. You are a listener. Don’t worry about all that, right now we have to find a way of describing what happens to you, for this is your way in. From now on, call it the Silence. Silence with a capitol “S”, ok? Say some more.”
“It is always there, though I only realised that just now as I spoke. I don’t feel it all the time, but it’s there.”
“Oh good, we’re doing well.”
“I don’t understand what you mean by the way in.”
“Yes you do.”
“I know you said I was asleep or something, and that truth was felt, not grasped by the mind. But where is in, how will I recognise it when I get there?”
“Oh dear, we are not doing so well…. Ok, why don’t we ask the Silence?”
“Yes. Right here, right now, by this wonderful red wall. Come on, close your eyes. Close them! That’s it. Bend your knees just a little, let your hands hang loosely….”
“Is this a meditation?”
“Shut up! Don’t say anything. I want you to listen. Doesn’t matter what you are thinking, just let your thoughts ramble on. But listen, put all your effort in to listening……”
And he did. Sounds came one by one, building in to a quiet night symphony. First, the gentle buzzing of the street-light, then, a breeze he had been unaware of, rustling the trees across the road, next, faint traffic sounds from the city-centre, then, very faint, a low hum, perhaps a generator nearby, and he could hear moths colliding with the street light. After some time, to his amazement, he could hear the moths soft wingbeats. These blended, marked infrequently by a sudden sound, a cat howling, a distant motor-bike accelerating. Because it was quiet, Sam found it easy to concentrate on the sounds, now interwoven, even though he was aware of his thoughts firing off. He noticed, as he often had before, how his thoughts tumbled, like a stone falling down-hill will dislodge many others. Then with a shock, Sam felt it. Underneath the interwoven symphony of night sounds and his rambling thoughts he felt a most peculiar pressure, and he remembered Frank’s word for it, the Silence. Yes, that was right, the right description. Franks voice sounded like a shout, yet it was only a whisper:
“Any Silence around?”
“Yes,” whispered Sam.
“What’s it like?”
“Same. A pressure. Like something’s going to happen. Like being at school and the teacher has asked you a question and he’s waiting for an answer, the whole class is waiting, the whole world is waiting. That’s not it. I can’t describe it. It’s not an absence of sound, but you’re right, Silence is the right word.”
“How do you feel?”
“Congratulations, you’re in!”
Sam’s eyes snapped open but Frank was already walking down the steps. With legs unsteady, Sam followed. At the bottom of the steps, Frank stopped suddenly, turned round and stared in to Sam’s eyes. Sam was just about to speak when Frank almost shouted:
“Again! Do it again now.”
Sam did not understand Frank’s urgency, but his growing sense of interest made him comply. He closed his eyes. Frank whispered:
“Bend your knees, just a little.”
Very quickly Sam heard the sounds of the night blend together again. He became so absorbed in listening that when Frank spoke again he nearly missed Franks request:
“This time look at your thoughts, I don’t mean analyze them, I mean, just look at them.”
Sam dutifully obeyed, and was stunned. Perhaps it was the way Frank emphasised the word “look”, but Sam found himself examining his thoughts in a way he never had before. For all his meditation and soul searching Sam had always seen his thoughts as “his”, something that “he” did. But now it felt as if his thoughts were just happening, grinding on by themselves, as if he was listening to an old man mumbling to himself on the top of a bus, or, as if switching on the radio and just skimming through the stations, catching unconnected fragments. He heard his thoughts commenting on the possible use of the building over the road, registering a hunger pang, remembering how beautiful the moss was, growing on the red wall, speculating about Frank. These thoughts seemed to be going on simultaneously, though he could only “follow” one at a time. Sam became uneasy at this disassociation, though he also felt a new calmness, or perhaps numbness. Frank spoke, Sam realising that the old man had an uncanny knack of knowing his mood:
“Of course, once you have seen that your mind is just a machine, things can never be the same again. The Silence can help you, sometimes. Anyway, the process has begun.”
“You’re on the boat Sam, the boat that is sinking.”
For once in his life Sam was truly speechless. He did not know what had happened, or what Frank was talking about, he could not concentrate on anything. But from nowhere a question came:
“Back there you said you had an appointment, what appointment?”
“An appointment at Ismara.”
Frank just smiled.
I Am Going To Die
AT the bottom of the steps they joined a small road and followed it down hill, on the left they came to a cemetery. The rusted gates were padlocked together. They paused and Frank pointed to a sign a few yards behind the gates:
New Churchyard, known as
the Strangers Burial Ground
opened 1787, closed 1871.
“That’s appropriate”, said Frank.
The cemetery was dark but not at all forbidding. Walkways split off left and right and three huge chestnut trees cast deep night shadows which swallowed up the paths. A few mausoleums and tombstones looked like ancient monuments, seen from a distance. The whole place fit snugly in to the side of the hill. Sam noticed that the padlock was rusted. No one used this little haven of peace.
“Why is this appropriate?” said Sam suddenly remembering Franks comment.
“Because death is the next hole in the boat.”
Despite his earlier attempt to get first hand experience Sam did not become gloomy at this turn of the conversation. He had always been fascinated by death, intellectually that is.
“Tell me all about it.”
“Keen all of a sudden. First, a question. What do you know about death?”
Sam noticed that Frank was smiling his irritating little smile, but he answered, hearing tones of sarcasm and irony in his reply:
“Well, it’s the opposite of life, of course. All bodily functions cease, or nearly all. Death is finally ascertained by the absence of electrical activity in the brain. People revived after experiencing clinical death sometimes have amazing experiences to report, many of these seem broadly similar. Religions claim there is a soul which survives bodily death, though conceptions of the soul vary from…”
“Enough of that, what do you know of death?”
“I’ve had some experiences. My mother and father died when I was eight. I don’t remember much about them, just some disconnected images. They wouldn’t let me go to the funeral, my Aunts that is, who raised me, if that’s what you’d call it…..”
Sam noticed that his voice was changing, his mood shifting, the sarcasm and irony had vanished:
“My Aunts…… that, is another story. A school-friend of mine died. I didn’t go to that funeral either, but I did visit his grave soon after. Seeing his name on the stone made me feel very strange, as if my memory of him was unreal. I touched the stone, that felt more real. I found it difficult to remember what he looked like, and this was scary because we had been friends, I’d seen him just the week before, running round, alive…….
After college I didn’t know what to do so I got a job as a hospital porter for about eighteen months or so. Saw a lot of death and dying there. The first time it hit was when I went to a side ward to collect a patient for x-ray. He was not that old, I’d seen him come in. Mid-fifties, tall, military bearing, confident, a leader, he looked pale, but in good shape, in charge, you know. Then I was away for two weeks, and when I came back I was in out-patients for a while, so all together I probably did not see him for about a month or six weeks. Just six weeks! What a change. His skin had become greyish-yellow, his arms neck and face were very thin but he had a huge distended belly. His eyes were glazed over with the drugs. I was shocked, really shocked. And I didn’t know why I was so shocked.
I had seen lots of suffering by then, horrible diseases, facial cancers, dying kids, dead bodies mangled by street accidents. So what was special about him, why did it get to me? It was ages before I twigged. All the other times I was prepared, I knew I was going to see something bad, there was time to prepare, time for something to click in to place, some buffer. But this time was different, I was not prepared, I had been dreamy and strange all day, distracted. At first I could not believe it was the same person. I realized for the first time that it could be me. Me. I could almost feel my eyes glaze over.”
Sam paused and looked at the tombstones. Frank was leaning against the wall, looking at him. A gust of wind moved through the three chestnut trees. A beautiful sound.
“Go on”, said Frank.
Sam’s voice was quiet when he continued:
“I saw things at the hospital. As a porter I went to the morgue regularly, I used to volunteer for the “body-jobs”, the other porters thought this was quite weird, though they were glad to get out of any job. I remember a traffic accident DOA, just a mess of blood and bones in a transparent body-bag. The morgue was run by a strange bloke we all called Bill the Body. The fridge was just one very large cabinet, floor to ceiling. He kept the babies on the top shelf, then kids, with adult corpses on the middle and lower shelves, all roughly alphabetical, left to right. But on the floor, in the right-hand corner, he kept his milk and sandwiches.”
They both laughed.
“Strange to open those big heavy doors and then look down and see a pint of milk and a tupperware box of sandwiches. Later I went in to Administration, I soon missed portering. I liked the Admin on-call work though. As a junior manager I had to do a residential on-call duty once a week or so, staying in a small flat in the big teaching hospital of our district. The other managers hated this, but I loved it. There is something very special about hospitals late at night, just walking down those corridors….. Anyway, it was the closest I got to being in charge, really in charge, carrying a bleep and all that. I got bleeped one night by the Charge Nurse of Casualty, he had a DOA that he was worried about. It was late, 3am or so, I got dressed and went straight over. I always got a little kick out of an emergency call out. Jim, the Charge Nurse, met me outside Resus:
“This is the story”, he said. “We have a young man in there who threw himself off the top of the Nurses Home and almost certainly died on impact. We made some effort to revive him though, because he is, or was, a copper and he was brought in by some of his mates. Apparently he had a row with his girlfriend, a student nurse staying in the Home, then just went to the top and jumped. She is very upset, in that side room, her Mum is one the way. She’ll go home with her, we have the number. Press haven’t found out yet so it is all still mercifully quiet.”
I went in to the Resus room and to my surprise I recognised the dead copper. I didn’t know him well but he was a regular in our Social Club. I remembered his girlfriend, beautiful girl, she had very long curly brown hair. Just the week before I had seen him arrive at the scene of a drunken brawl between rival packs of medical students. He calmly radioed for assistance and then waded in when his colleagues turned up. He was a special, not regular police, I think his day job was in a police car pound. I was shocked to see him there. Jim came in and saw me closely examining the young man, and began to explain the injuries:
“He fell on to grass so he is not too badly mangled. No bruising because he died quickly. He was carried here through the back by two mates, which was stupid, I must have a word with their boss about that. All this swollen area here by his shoulder and armpit caused by massive internal displacement.”
Jim was called away and I continued my staring at the dead Special. I looked closely at his eyes, which were open, the ET tube was still in his mouth, they leave it in for coroners cases. He looked very very young. I never liked him much. He had a weak looking, resentful face, though lying dead on that table he just looked like a kid, almost a baby. I felt shocked because I could see how destructive death is. I know that sounds silly, but I saw something that surprised me. For the first time I saw why some people represent death as some powerful external figure that comes and gets you. But when I looked at his face I knew that it wasn’t true. I was amazed that he had the courage to kill himself, I must have read him wrong. He wanted to die. He took his death out, like you take a bus-pass out of your wallet. It was his death, his very own. I could see how personal it was…..”
“Is that how you felt about your death, up on the bridge?”
Frank’s question took Sam totally by surprise, as if he had been struck, he felt breathless and panicky. Sam had not talked like this to anyone for a long time and his mind and mood had run on ahead. Despite his intense surprise, Sam heard himself whisper:
A silence blossomed at the gate of the Strangers Burial Ground, and within that quiet Sam felt the Silence gently pushing. Frank was quiet and motionless, still leaning against the wall, waiting. Sam gripped the bars of the padlocked gate and stared through like a convict stares out of his cell. He could not speak but he knew now that he was not at all sure about wanting to die, and obviously had never been really certain in his heart. He had not “found” his death, he had just failed to live fully. But death was not an automatic consequence of that failure, no matter how great the misery and self-loathing. His failure had not led him to an all-or-nothing situation like the young Special. He had never done anything from an all-or-nothing perspective.
Seeing the distinction between failing to live and really wanting to die flooded Sam with contradictory feelings. Two main feelings began to stand out. The first was a real fear; fear of having to carry on living with all that anxiety, paranoia, stress and emptiness. This fear brought in its wake a bone-grinding and deadening weariness. Yet at that moment of resurging hopelessness he was amazed to see something different emerge, and this second feeling was new. The hopelessness was partially breaking up and drifting apart, it was not total. He did not have to die. His death sentence was not mandatory. A germ of excitement began to hum inside of him. He turned to look at Frank, as if with new eyes. He wanted to speak but his throat closed off and he felt his eyes going all wet again. A funny hunched bald old man who he had known less than an hour and now Sam wanted to know everything about him, just everything, who he was, where he came from, what he did, what he knew. His urge to know felt as physical as the lump in his throat, but before he could burst Frank spoke:
“Is there more?”
“Yes”, croaked Sam.
“Go on then.”
Sam tried to gather his disordered senses, which would not cooperate. Instead, an image of Albert’s suitcase suddenly entered his mind:
“Albert’s suitcase,” Sam continued, still finding it hard to talk, clearing his throat.
“One of my jobs in the Teaching Hospital was to look after the Death Desk, you won’t be surprised to hear I volunteered for it. When a patient died there were certain procedures that had to be carried out, contacting relatives, sorting out the Death Certificate, handing over property, organising funerals if there was no next of kin, liaising with the Coroner and so on. Usually I did this during the working week, among other duties, but one Saturday I was on-call so I went to the office to catch up on some back-log. I finished most of it, leaving deceased patient’s property to last, I always got a weird thrill out of it, a kind of voyeurism I suppose, like staring in people’s windows.
Mostly the properties were uninteresting and predictable, pyjamas, sweets, tissues, magazines, paperbacks – things people just took in for their stay. It’s funny, even after I got used to corpses, handling a dead persons property brought the weirdest feelings. Albert’s suitcase had the strongest impact, the whole thing peaked with that, the fascination wore off after. Anyway, when there is no next of kin I had to list all their property, or check the nurses list, valuables and money went to the cashier, the rest in store for seven years, after which it’s given to the Sally Army. Albert’s suitcase was one of those old leather ones, with reinforced corners. I opened it up and right away knew that this was going to be special.
On top of some clothes was an old battered photo-album, I put it aside to look at last. The case contained the usual lonely old mans possessions, a worn old “best” suit, some old collarless shirts with starched collars wrapped in wax-paper ready for use, the cuffs were worn but darned immaculately, a grey woolly cardigan, threadbare slippers, some official papers including a pension book, a very old driving license, in a brown paper bag a highly polished pair of black shoes, a beautiful old silver shaving kit in a leather case, socks, long underwear, a wallet containing £3-48p. No ID in the wallet, the police had been unable to find any trace of friend or relative. The Hospital would now bury him, though I felt what I was doing was as just as much a ceremony as a funeral would have been.
All the things in the case were neatly folded, clean and looked after, but all old and worn. It seems he just moved from hostel to hostel, going by his pension record. I turned to the photo-album. Like everything else it was old and worn, made of black leather. There were photos on every page, most dating from the 30s or 40s by the clothes, and showed an Asian city, Singapore perhaps, with a group of young sailors and Chinese girls. There was Albert, often photographed with a beautiful girl who looked half Chinese, half English. There were shots of them in front of temples and big imperial looking buildings and on a beach hung over with huge trees with twisty roots. Everyone looked happy, yet Albert and his girl did not smile. They weren’t sad, and they looked quite relaxed, but they were not turning anything on for the camera, like the others. This was Albert, as if in some previous lifetime. I knew it was him because I had seen him in the morgue, now a thin old male corpse with close-cropped grey hair and a glass eye.
Seeing him then in the photos and trying to match the images they conjured up with the cold body in a big fridge was a strange feeling. I could not match them up. Those photos were so heavy with some strong meaning, now presumably lost forever, but the body in the fridge was so empty. Now I knew that the serious young Naval Rating in the photos and Albert on the slab were the same person, separated only by time, but they felt different. I could not find a sense of Albert on the slab having a life that stretched behind him. Albert in the photos was not the Albert stretched on the slab. Looking at the photos, I could not see how this young man could become the old corpse in the fridge. I started to think about my own life. Three years ago felt like me, five years ago, well, getting hazy. Ten years ago, it’s not me, a stranger. And as for being a kid, well……..
Don’t get me wrong, my memories are important to me, but at the same time, they don’t feel like me. If I had to go to a lost property office and claim my memories from ten years ago, and the man in charge said, “Are these your memories sir?”, and I said “Yes”, it would feel like a lie. It wouldn’t be a lie as such. But it would feel like one. Albert’s suitcase made me feel this. Three days before Albert had been walking down the road, suitcase in hand, £3.48p in his wallet, crosses the road and wallop!”
Sam slapped his hands together for effect, sending a mini echo round the cemetery. As if in answer, a gust of wind shook the trees.
“This is going somewhere,” said Frank, “what are you getting at?”
“I am not sure. I haven’t thought about this for years. I think it’s something like this: Albert’s personal effects were more personal than his corpse in the morgue. I had something of that strangers life in my hands. Where were photos of other years? What happened in Singapore? What happened between Albert and the girl? How did he end up a lonely old man moving from hostel to hostel? I had his life in my hands, then again, I did not. I realized then that Albert’s corpse and Albert’s suitcase were like smoke-screens, like decoys. They were just things. They are not………..”
But Sam’s voice just trailed away. He looked at Frank for inspiration but he said nothing. He looked at the graves which seemed more cold and distant, then decided to try again:
“I think I was fascinated by dead peoples personal property because it was personal. Perhaps like secrets, like I might get to know something about them, about everyone, that was …… truthful, that’s it, truthful! Because when you are with people they don’t tell the truth…… It’s not that they are lying as such it’s just that they are……. They are hidden………….perhaps death alone reveals them”
He searched Frank’s face for any clue that his rambling might have meant anything. But Frank gave nothing away, and after a short silence began to stroll down the hill. Sam fell in behind him. The road dipped sharply down and then angled off to the left. They heard a solitary owl hoot once from the trees behind them. Rounding the bend Frank stopped, stretched out his arm and pointed. On the opposite hill stood a huge public school, rising behind it was a green tree-covered park lit by lamps, amongst the trees was Cabot Tower.
“It’s beautiful,” said Sam.
Frank ignored his comment, but turned and stared at him awhile before speaking:
“The things you have talked about are important, and I needed to know what you know about death. You have seen enough and you are open to it, best of all you know you are going to die. Most don’t get that far, they do not really connect, that it is really going to happen to them. A popular fatalism is widespread, eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we must die, you can’t take it with you, and so on. Even so, people don’t know, really know, in their hearts, that they are going to die. But there is a much deeper mystery here, something more profound than just making the most of a life that is over all to soon. That time in France, when you first felt the Silence, you felt the presence of some other powerful being, but that was you! And that panicky other little voice which whined “come back, it’s a mistake”, was what we shall come to call a Self-Image. Now you think that that little voice was you, but it’s only a tiny part of what you are. You are a much bigger mystery. That’s why death is so scary for most people. It’s not just that it is a big unknown, death reveals that they are not who they think they are. And when they finally confront death, as they are dying, they feel that it’s too late, they cannot go back and find truth, or live truthfully. Actually, it’s never too late, but they don’t know that. A lot of bitterness can come with old age, disappointment, a sense of being cheated, to use your word, that something was hidden from them…..”
Sam’s excitement had been building up and now burst out:
“But why is it hidden?”
“It’s not hidden! Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s hidden. Death is a big revealer, but on it’s own it is not enough, you need something else……..”
Frank lapsed in to silence and just stared at the ever more uncomfortable Sam. Finally, Sam had to ask:
“Well, what is it?”
“You’re going to find out. For you, now, there is nothing else to do.”
THEY carried on down the hill, each lost in thought. It became lighter as they approached Jacob Wells Rd with its city lamps. There was a low wall to the right, Frank leant against it, resting his elbows. Sam did likewise and they stared across the road to the dark and imposing building of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital School. Behind it rose Brandon Hill. Sam spoke, his voice calm now:
“My friends hate that tower. They think it’s a stupid Victorian folly, a monstrosity, glorifying colonialism and exploitation. But I still like it, especially at night, like this, when it’s all lit up. That light at the top makes it look like a lighthouse. I wish we could go up.”
“No, it’s locked at night.”
Frank smiled, and strolled on down in to Jacobs Wells Rd. Sam was bursting with questions, but was trying to be “good”, holding back. At the moment he thought he could wait no longer Frank continued:
“So, the way in to your own life, for you, is through knowing the Silence…….”
“Yeah, I still don’t understand that really. Am I suppose to ask the Silence, or listen or what?”
“No…… but maybe yes, a little. Don’t worry about details just now. I must tell you about all the holes in the boat so you’ve got it, it may take years before you see the whole of it……”
Frank stopped when he saw the bewildered look on Sam’s face. He took hold of Sam’s elbow and led him across the road. Outside the iron-gate entrance of the school Frank paused and talked slowly:
“I am going to tell you about the holes in the boat and I will answer your questions in whatever time we have left. Don’t try too hard now to grasp the big picture. Ask questions about the details, but try and relax about the whole thing. Just listen……. Take a deep breath…. and out. Again……….. good. Better?”
“No buts for a while. Just listen as we walk.”
They walked uphill, past the ugly multi-storey car park built over a Comet furniture store. The odd car went by, they were on a main road now. A police car crawled by, both officers looked at the two late-night walkers, one of them said something and they both laughed, the car sped off. The walkers turned right and climbed a concrete stairwell which reeked of piss. Frank continued:
“Most people experience themselves as outside of their own lives. Only big feelings break through, grand passion, fear, love, anger, horror.”
They emerged in to Upper Berkeley Place, a small square of two storey little Victorian houses. Frank slowed down, barely walking at all, as he went on with his description:
“That is why shock is the usual reaction to big events, it’s not just the trauma and adrenalin and such, it’s that people cannot believe that such a thing can happen to them, to the life they lead. This feeling of unreality can last indefinitely. Therein lies the problem, the gap between the world, the events in the world and peoples conception of themselves. Why…… Why, can’t people see the world as it is? Well, you are going to find out. Using the nine holes in the boat. I can’t just tell you why, but I give you a technique and then you go look for yourself. Got that?”
“I’m curious. I can’t deny that.”
“If you’re curious you will use the technique to go and look for yourself, won’t you?”
“Ok. Technique, right….. what is it? What’s the matter?”
“I know. I know I have to look for myself, you can’t tell me. But couldn’t you, you know, hint just a little?”
“You are incorrigible, curiosity is fine, but not when it’s used as an avoidance. Then again, it might be useful to lay down some background, some Geography, that’s a good word. Ok we’ll have some Geography.”
Frank stopped, and took a long cool look at Sam, who was grinning from ear to ear. Frank turned away and continued his snail-pace strolling and talked slowly and clearly:
“Before I do that I want to stress again something I said earlier. This is important. You must attempt this or your mind will go berserk, with its thinking and theory making. I may not be describing things that actually exist. Whether they do, or not, doesn’t matter at all, as long as they serve their purpose. A scientist makes theories and builds models, but he believes he is describing a reality which is “out there”, or that he is approximating something which exists.
Even psychologists and shrinks, dealing with the most elusive thing, the mind, believe they are describing a structure that is common to all and understandable as a separate “thing” to look at. The whole fabric of our culture and language relates to a, more or less, shared reality. This is built on a complicated system of judgements, left- right, right-wrong, up-down, in-out, good- bad, and so on, gaining in complexity ad infinitum. Arbitrating within such a structure between what is real and what is not requires an objective set of measurements. Two and two do make four, stick your hand in the fire and it will get burned. From the most basic things like this, right up to the latest nuclear physics, all are based on judgements about how the world is. But what I will be saying is not necessarily part of this structure of judgements.
Everything I say, even when it seems sensible, is just part of a technique, building a ladder that leans against a wall. You climb that ladder and look over the wall yourself. You have to do that. When you have done that you can spend time trying to grasp it. Do you understand?”
“Good. Well. Geography then. Just now I talked about the real world, the world where two and two make four, the world of the scientist and politician, the common-sense, pull-yourself-together, every-day world. We will call this just that, the World, capital “W”. But as well as this World there are a host of experiences, feelings, dreams and so on, which do not fit in, and often directly contradict, the common-sense rules and understandings. All these we will call the Edge. This is the right word because these experiences are at the edge of the World, but they are also at the edge of something else, something you have already experienced. Beyond the Edge is the Silence. The difference between the Edge and the Silence is that the Edge can be talked about using the language of the World, but the Silence is altogether beyond. For example, is the Silence really silent?”
“See what I mean? The Edge will sometimes be open to interpretation, either serious or playful, but never try to explain or pin-down the Silence. So that is your Geography, the World, the Edge and the Silence. Now, the third hole in the boat….”
“Yes, dummy, haven’t you been listening? The first is ignition, your way in to your own world of feelings. The second we called “I am going to die”, knowledge and acceptance of death. The third is the most important one. Constancy.”
They turned the corner of the little square, Frank stopped to admire a small silver birch with its brand new leaves, swaying now with the gathering wind. He turned to look at Sam and continued in precise measured tones:
“Constancy is the bed-rock of your practice. It is the simplest thing, yet the hardest to do. From this moment on, from this exact moment that I speak, you must never stop trying to be aware of yourself. You must watch yourself. Day and night, on and on, for ever, being aware of yourself as completely as possible. For something so important this description sounds so insubstantial, yet it is vital! Perhaps you think that you are aware, that you are wide awake. But you are not. Being aware of yourself as completely as possible means simply this: you must watch yourself, examine yourself, your every thought, your every action, everything you say, everything you do. You must watch yourself, constantly, as if your very life depends on it, which, in a way, it certainly does. Full awareness of yourself comes after some time of practising Constancy. At first it will feel like nothing, but then you may feel like a kettle slowly coming to the boil.
There will be times when it feels as if the kettle is boiling furiously, you will feel under a nameless pressure, as if you want to throw up, but cannot. No matter, just carry on with the Constancy. Just keep on, keep on. It must be as constant as breathing, every second of every hour of every day, you must be aware of yourself in this manner. And this feeling will grow, not just in intensity like the kettle analogy, but in many other ways. There will be times when you “wake up”, and realize that you have been as if “asleep”, that you have not been practising Constancy. Don’t punish yourself! Just gently restart the Constancy, and carry on. You must be gentle with yourself, this is no competitive exercise, you cannot just force yourself to be aware. Such self-induced activity will get in the way of Constancy, it is to let go of such excess mental baggage that you do Constancy. Remember, it is not doing, but watching that shall occupy you. Be gentle, but do it! Lying in bed at night, before falling asleep, imagine that you are aware whilst asleep. When you wake up, stay still for a while and reassert your Constancy. Making tea, making love, digging the garden, being bored at work, having a shit, watching telly – all the time, Constancy.”
They strolled down towards Byron place. Frank stared at his feet as he slowly walked, Sam tried to work out which of a million questions he wanted to ask first. He decided:
“That sounds straightforward, it’s like the Buddhist practice of mindfulness…..”
“There you go again!!” Frank was sharp with his interruption. “You can’t resist it can you? You’ve got to place it, you got to put it somewhere, haven’t you? You have to neatly slot it in to some pigeon-hole of your knowledge. Well what you have just done can be the first step to avoiding it. Stupid! Whether it is or isn’t, is irrelevant to what we are doing! You are climbing the ladder, right, to look yourself, right? Don’t try to impress me, you waste your time……..
But to answer your question, Constancy is the basis of all serious attempts at self awareness, religious or psychological. There are many different kinds, but they tend to fall in to two camps, indirect and direct. The indirect kind of Constancy uses a support like chanting, praying, using beads, mantras, mandalas, staring, dancing, ritual objects, using anything in fact. This is indirect because the aim is to bypass the mind by blotting it out. This is like turning your own radio up to drown out the sound of your neighbour’s radio. The direct way is simpler and a thousand times harder. We could call it “just looking”. No trappings, no paraphernalia, no dogma and no help! Just looking, but….”
And Frank paused to gain dramatic effect, he had a wicked sparkle in his eyes:
“…….you must look all the time. Forever. You see, you must become aware of yourself without using your mind.”
Frank paused outside number 14. It had a bright red door with a polished brass letter box and door-knocker. The rest of the place looked a bit shabby, peeling paint and rusty guttering. But the front door was immaculate. Frank seemed lost in thought, a far away expression on his face. Sam was about to ask about the house, then remembered Frank’s ground rules, and restricted his question:
“This thing about not using your mind, how is that possible? Surely everything goes in and out of your mind?”
Frank’s attention seemed to come back from a long way away, there was no longer a sparkle in his eyes.
“What was that?” he said.
“Doesn’t everything go in and out of your mind?”
They stood, outside number 14, looking at each other. Sam struggled with his thoughts, and tried again:
“How is it possible to not use your mind, that’s unconsciousness……”
“No. Terms can be confusing. “Mind” is such a little word for something so vast in meaning. Philosophers talk of mind, with a small “m” and a big “M”, shrinks talk of mind structures, Zen folk have many different minds, Christians talk of the mind of God, a scientist might say that if the mind exists it probably exists within the brain, or is the functioning of the brain. So many minds, it’s all too confusing! Some other time you can work out your own language but for now we use mine.
For me, that word, “mind”, expresses that which calculates. Calculation takes place in the World – remember your Geography. In the Edge calculations, mental activity, appear distorted: the Edge is the place of dreams and omens. And the Silence? No calculations there, no calculating mind there. Your mind is only a small part of what is available to you. Your mind is not you. Your mind is just another organ of perception, an important one, it’s a processor, a calculator and a fantastic memory bank. At the end of the day, that’s all it is – very impressive – but that’s it. The mind deals with thoughts, but what are feelings?
You think about things, plan, rehearse, re-work past events, categorize, and make judgements. That, is what the mind does. But feelings? What are they?”
Frank’s voice had gradually been rising as he talked, he leaned forward and grasped Sam’s arm, his eyes shone with a fierceness that surprised Sam. Frank lowered his voice but the intensity was still there as he asked again:
“What are feelings? We talk about them, and they are so important to us, yet we take them for granted. We don’t really know what they are or where they come from. Ideas come and go, memories are like selected old movies in our skulls, physical sensations depend on the environment inside and outside our bodies, most behaviour is a response to biological instinct and social conditioning. But feelings? They are special. Tell me, where do feelings come from?”
The question took Sam by surprise, but he was more surprised to find that he did not have an immediate answer. He hesitated and looked away for inspiration, then looked back at Frank, who was still silent but leaning forward with that exaggerated expectancy on his face. At last inspiration came to Sam:
“My feelings come from me. Inside me, they are a response…..”
“And that’s just how everyone sees them, and of course it’s true, they are inside you. But Constancy will start to open up something that you have always felt, but never actually known. You…”
and Frank leaned even closer and tapped Sam’s sternum,
“you, do not have a you”.
Frank emphasized the “have” and the “you” by slapping his palm, but went on before Sam could question him:
“Was it not you, just a mere twenty minutes ago, who told me that you feel disconnected from your own far memories? Was it not you who told me that his obsession with dead peoples’ property was probably a covert attempt to learn something secret but also something direct and meaningful about what a person is? Well you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that what you were looking for was secret knowledge about yourself. You said that people are hidden. They are not hidden. You are hidden! Why…….. Why!”
Frank was still grasping Sam’s arm. The skin where Frank’s eyebrows should have been was raised adding to the staring intensity of his eyes. Sam was silent. Frank shook him gently and persisted:
“Well? Why are you hidden?”
“I don’t know…..”
“Excellent answer. I can imagine how much it hurts you to admit ignorance but you must always be clear and honest to yourself about what you don’t know. That is the only place you can start from, and it is crucial to Constancy. You don’t know because what you think of as “you”, is not you. What you think of as “you”, is just a construct, a clever machine, a fascinating and vastly complex combination of biological and social building-blocks. Really you have known this all along, that is why you are trying to kill yourself.”
Frank dropped Sam’s arm and turned to face the little square. He stared at the small trees swaying in the breeze as Sam’s mind raced all over the place. At last, Sam squeezed out a question:
“What?….. I don’t understand.”
“The self that you think of as “you” is unsatisfactory. Or rather, is split, one part fiercely judging another part for failing to create a life corresponding to some deeply held values that you scarcely know about or cannot stand to look at. So, rather than pursue that mystery you will discard yourself in a stupid romantic gesture….. Oh dear, have I upset you? Wake up! I can tell by that appalled look on your face that you think I am disregarding your lifetime’s misery. Your suffering is real enough. But tell me, why are you suffering?”
Once again, Frank’s question caught Sam off-guard. He groped for some “deep” answer and began to feel ashamed; he had stood on the bridge, letter in hand, and then a weird old man had tied him in knots over the reason. He tried to remember the days and days of pain, but now they seemed like a dream. He sighed and spoke anyway:
“I don’t like the world and I don’t like me, the human condition….”
“Bullshit! And you know it is! That’s just an idea, words….”
“Alright, alright! I hurt. And I’m fed up with hurting! That good enough for you?”
“Yes, better. But why?”
Frank’s question, relentless like a bloodhound, left Sam speechless again. He saw that stripping away all the explanations and justifications and excuses he was left with, not a gaping wound, but just an insignificant nothingness. He heard himself say it:
“That’s more like it. And why is that?”
The child in Sam responded angrily:
“You’re the genius, you tell me, you have all the answers?”
Frank turned and looked at Sam cooly, but his voice was warm:
“I don’t have all the answers. I have all the questions. And besides, as I have said….”
“Yeah, yeah. I must go look for myself.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Tell me about the building-blocks.”
For once, Sam’s question took Frank by surprise, clearly he was not expecting this question. Sam was too distracted to notice Frank’s hesitation, so he just went on:
“According to you I have confused my real self, which is not mine in the possessive sense, with some construct made up of, and I quote, biological and social building-blocks. Well, if Constancy is going to reveal my “real” self, then it might be useful to know what you think of the unreal bits. Perhaps then I’ll be able to tell the difference.”
“Idiot!” Frank seemed really angry. “Haven’t you been listening? I provide the ladder and you climb it and look over the wall yourself. It’s your feelings which will show you the difference!”
Frank stormed off and turned right in to Byron Place. Sam followed and turning the corner found Frank examining the menu of the Malaysian restaurant. All his anger had vanished and he was chuckling as he spoke:
“As it happens, that question is not so dumb. I wanted to say something about the Reference Points.”
They continued strolling slowly along the road, Frank was staring at the University tower as he talked:
“Don’t forget, what I say is more a way of talking than a description of something real. Well, the biological and social building-blocks I call Reference Points. Scientists try to establish sources of behaviour, the famous nature versus nurture debate. Are we just animals, or created by our environment, or a mixture of the two? From now on, for you, such a pursuit is irrelevant, you are trying to see directly for yourself and in order to do so, much intellectual baggage must be set aside. In the process of looking for yourself you must use those tools that will help and not hinder, hence the boat that sinks. Now, remember your Geography? The mind, which calculates, is of the World. That calculating mind is made up of things which I shall call Reference Points, they are building blocks, they are objects, they are just things. It doesn’t matter where they come from or where they reside or how many there are, it is what they do that counts! Your name is a Reference Point.
Your address is a Reference Point.
Your job title.
The things you do at work.
Your friends name.
Where you meet your friends.
Your daily newspaper.
The clichés you trot out during small talk.
Your favourite movie.
Your inside leg measurement.
The brand of toothpaste you buy.
The lies you tell your lover.
The rubbish in your bin.
The bus stop you wait at every morning.
The ants nest you poured boiling water on when you were a kid….”
“How did you know….”
“Shut up, that doesn’t matter. The Reference Points are everything you can list. Everything. The Reference Points are everything that the mind can use to think.”
Frank ceased talking abruptly and turned right up the cobble-stoned street of Upper Byron Place. They were silent as they slowly climbed up the hill. Sam noticed that Frank was not as fit as he seemed, he was leaning heavily on an iron railing that hugged the brick wall which extended to the top. About half way up Frank paused, he did not seem out of breath but he leant against the wall, and was smiling when he turned to Sam and spoke:
“You’ve been thinking.”
“Come on then, don’t feign reluctance now. Shoot.”
“Well, if everything that happens goes on the list, becomes a Reference Point as you say, then the Edge and the Silence are Reference Points too….”
“No. Don’t be too logical. But that is a good question. Don’t forget that your Geography is only a way of talking. The Edge and the Silence are not part of the World as you experience them. While they are happening they have their own internal consistency which the mind cannot grasp intellectually, you feel the Edge and the Silence. When the Edge or the Silence have gone, then only the memory of your experience remains. Those memories are part of the World, they are Reference Points. The World is your everyday reality, the realm of the calculating mind. But there is more to this.”
Frank stared off across the narrow road, then closed his eyes as he, more quietly, carried on talking:
“Your mind is made up of these countless millions of things that I have called Reference Points. I call them that because on their own they are just points of varying importance. They become more significant when they combine together to form what I shall call a Self-Image. The Self-Image contains a lot of basic stuff like your name, address, bank account number, daily life details, as well as memory, instinct, preferences, obsessions, what kind of person you think you are, what you believe other people think of you and so on. All this and much more, vastly complicated and usually containing many contradictory things. You may have many different Self-Images in a lifetime, but with some overlap, only one at a time. Now the Self-Image does not control perception as such, but it pre-disposes you to see things in certain ways. For all intents and purposes you see everything in the World through the eyes of your Self-Image, which itself is a coalition of Reference Points. Now, the Self-Image is not a stable creation. For a start your stock-pile of Reference Points is growing all the time. Your Self-Image is always being added to and bits deleted from it back in to the mass of Reference Points…”
“So to use an analogy, the Reference Points are the hardware, the computer. The Self-Image is like the software that the computer runs.”
Sam was evidently so pleased with himself that he did not notice the look of distaste that crossed Frank’s face. Frank sighed but continued:
“I hate computer analogies. Once again you are creating a theory, dummy. Try and get the feel of what I say and apply it to your own thoughts and feelings. But you are on the right track. The Reference Points, RPs, are the mass of information inside you, the Self-Image selects those important ones to blend into a, sort of control centre. But it is a fragile mechanism. You go on holiday, the plane crashes just after take-off, you survive, but with terrible injuries. Your Self-Image would never be the same again. Trauma can do that; dramatic changes. Young teenage soldiers sent to Vietnam, had no way to assimilate the vast and sudden in-put of new and intensely demanding RPs. They literally woke up one morning to discover they had become someone else, their Self-Images changed too rapidly and too radically. Never underestimate this possibility. It can happen in the blink of an eye. No, the Self-Image is not at all stable. Trouble is, it thinks that it is.”
“I think I am with you. But I don’t know….. I mean, at the end of the day, what is the Self-Image?”
“It’s just a survival mechanism, nothing special. You need it to get by in daily life, it serves a tremendously useful purpose. Without it functioning smoothly life is a misery of suffering and insanity. But…”
Frank held up his hand like some school-teacher calling for extra attention:
“…….however valuable it may be, it is a problem for us if we want to, or have to, go further then the experiences of everyday life. Because it is a survival mechanism, and a good one when it is working properly, it acts as a censor of everything you experience. Everything. You have a dream at night, a strong dream. You wake up and you think: that was amazing. But your Self-Image will label that experience as a dream, pigeon-hole it, allocate importance. Your Self-Image will say: oh, it’s only a dream, dreams are not real. Whereas a letter on your door-mat from the bank threatening to withdraw your cheque card, because of your ridiculous overdraft, will be allocated a great deal of importance, if not panic. Well good, it’s supposed to do that, it’s a survival mechanism, and you need your cheque card, and all the other million and one things you need to have and to know to get by in the World. Trouble is, the World is not the only source of experience, there is the Edge and the Silence. But your Self-Image will treat an Edge experience as if it comes from the World, and give it very little or no importance at all. It will be relegated to the same status as dreams or not “seen”. A direct experience of the Silence can be so strong that it will blow the Self-Image away. And when the Self-Image “returns”, not being able to incorporate the experience as it does Edge experiences, it will impose amnesia or label it insanity. Your own experience was not unlike this, yes?”
But Sam was quiet, trying to absorb Frank’s words. Frank turned and continued walking slowly up the hill, tightly gripping the rail. Sam fell in behind, his mind whizzing away, nineteen to the dozen. Sam did not notice their slow progress. They reached the entrance to St Mary’s private hospital when Frank stopped again.
Sam had a question sorted:
“OK. The mind is a calculating mechanism, made up of countless millions of RPs, some are more important than others and the most important, at any one moment in time, are pulled together to form the Self-Image, which filters perceptions, allocates importance, and does this in order to survive. But…..”
Sam held his hand up, mimicking Frank’s gesture:
“……the mind cannot absorb everything. It struggles with stuff from the Edge, and can’t handle the Silence at all. You said that I must try and become aware of myself without using my mind. But if the Self Image is not the be-all-and-end-all, then something else is. What is it?”
Frank did not answer, he just grinned. Sam, all eager, pressed on:
“Is it a collection of parts? One more dominant than the others but only at certain times? Because the Buddhists talk of five skandhas….”
Frank’s grin vanished, as he savagely interrupted:
“Cut it! Cut it out! Can’t you see now what you do? Your speculations are useless. Your learning cannot help you now. Were your smart ideas going to stop you jumping off the bridge? You need something else! Your learning is like a huge collection of birds eggs, dusty, empty, lifeless. If you are hungry you must cook and eat a real egg, you must find some sustenance. No more empty dead eggs.”
Frank looked long and hard at the crest-fallen Sam, then reached out and patted him gently on the shoulder. Frank sighed, turned and continued up the hill, speaking over his shoulder:
“Constancy will show you what it is. For you, now, nothing else matters.”
THE road veered sharply round to the left. In front of them was a red sandstone wall which bordered the park of Brandon Hill. An entrance revealed concrete steps which continued to lead upwards. The area was lit by an old iron lamp and the light was much softer than the harsh sodium glare of the main roads. Frank paused to look at the circle of yellow light. It was an ordinary scene. But as Sam watched he began to feel some change of mood, Frank’s quiet attention had changed the atmosphere. Frank was staring at the pool of light, completely unmoving, his eyes fixed but his face relaxed. Sam could not see anything fascinating, he tried to be relaxed but noticed that he was fidgeting. It became too much, he was just about to ask when Frank slowly raised his hand for silence. Sam went back to staring at the light. Suddenly, Frank walked across the road, and climbed up the concrete steps.
Sam caught up with him as they emerged in to the park. The path wound round the conical hill; they had joined it about half way up. Large beech trees lined the route of the path, the lights of the town could be seen in between the leaves, now swaying and rustling as the breeze picked up. The branches scraped the tops of more iron lamps that followed the path, their light softening the trunks of the trees.
Ahead, Sam was surprised to see a middle-aged man and woman sat on one of the many wooden benches. They stared forward in silence and made no acknowledgement as Frank and Sam walked by. Sam thought they looked sad and exhausted. The walkers continued, following the gentle shape of the hill. Through a gap in the trees, to their right, Sam could see the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Boys school, which seemed dark and sinister; he felt a wave of pity for all kids in boarding schools. Frank paused, and looked out over the rooftops of Clifton, the direction they had come from, and said:
“Constancy is the most difficult thing. Time and again you will wake up and realise that you have been coasting along in a semi-conscious state. Watch out especially for when you are doing boring repetitious tasks, tedious journeys, chatting to friends and so on. These times, it is easy to fall asleep, to drift into semi-consciousness. And there will be times when the endless task of constantly watching yourself will be so wearying that you will want to scream. What will you do?”
“Watch myself scream?”
“That’s the spirit. Remember, this is not like taking vows. If you get drunk and loose yourself, don’t go in for heavy punishment when you regain awareness. If you wake up from a fortnights self-pity, don’t purge yourself with guilt. Just watch yourself. Just do it.”
“You talked about different Self-Images that the mind creates out of the continually developing Reference Points, that over time, different Self-Images would emerge to reflect new experiences and changing circumstances. So, how will I know that another Self-Image will not emerge which does the Constancy, like, a new one watching the old one?”
“Brilliant question. I am glad to see that you are not only awake, but paying attention. The simple answer is that you cannot be 100% sure. But! The workings of a Self-Image, yours, mine, anybodies will become more and more obvious as you go further with your Constancy; it’s like a smell, you will be able to smell the workings of a Self-Image.
Here is one of the dangers, it has been called “the old man comes in through the back door”. The idea of this is simple: you throw the old man out of the front door, and unbeknown to yourself he hobbles round the side and returns through the back door. For example, you might be a compulsive smoker, but you summon the motivation to give up. Perhaps you had a health scare. Anyway, you succeed. You give up smoking, but become a compulsive eater instead. The compulsion has changed, but the driving force is unaffected. The old man has come in through the back door, your problem re-presents itself. The success you felt was illusory. This can happen a lot. But here lies the strength of Constancy, done well, done with true heart, it will render your Self-Image transparent, yours and everybody elses’. You do not want to get rid of your Self-Image, it is much too useful, you just want to isolate the censorship that it enforces. Certainty is a picture fabricated by the Self-Image, you can never be certain again, not in the old way, anyhow. But you will experience something much better. The truth of your own feelings.”
Sam found himself getting more and more agitated as Frank was speaking, and now blurted out:
“But what you’re saying is that the base line for knowing things is just my own feelings, and if that is true for me then it must be true for others, this means we are like bumper cars that just meander around with nothing real between us….”
“That may or may not be the case, but you don’t know that yet, you must experience that directly first in order to know….”
“Right or wrong, come on, are you saying that the only thing that is real, is what feels right to me?”
“Feelings are real! Thoughts, no matter how brilliant they are, are just calculations, it is what we feel about our thoughts that really matters. With Constancy you are trying to let go of that part of you which is fixing on one reality at the expense of all the others. You have to trust that your Self-Image is going to carry on like an automatic pilot whilst you deliberately undermine it, that this huge mystery that you find yourself in, your life, can be explored, but not through any port in the storm, not through some clever mental somersaults, no, through your feelings…..” Frank tapped Sam on the chest with his index finger, “…..your feelings!”
“Does this mean that if I am lying in bed with a fever and hallucinating that the police are coming to kill me that for all intents and purposes it is true and not paranoia?”
“Can you see what you have just done? You have created a hypothetical example of what reality is and then gone on to create the groundwork for distinguishing between two or more “states” of reality. So now you have three states: the “real” world of not being in a fever, the “unreal” world of feverish hallucinations, and a third state that arbitrates between the other two! But all three of those are just creations of your Self-Image, creations of your mind! You can only be where you find yourself. Constancy will help you see through the quagmire of mental creations. What you experience is real! But to answer the drift of your question, at the end of the day what is real is what you feel, not what you think. Thinking is endless and removed. Feelings are always now. With Constancy you will not need to choose between different states that might, or might not be real. That….is what Constancy offers.”
Sam was about to respond, but stopped. Frank’s last point had sunk in, Sam could feel it, like a stone sinking in to a deep quiet lake, ripples spreading out. Frank turned away and continued along the path, which began curving away to their left, hugging the hill side. Conifers began replacing the beech trees, a tall hedge concealed a bowling green. The walkers reached the first of a series of small hairpin bends which twisted the path up to the crown of the hill, now hidden by trees high above them. Frank continued talking as they slowly walked along:
“Constancy is the keystone of what you do. Nothing else matters. But……”, one of Frank’s pauses. “There are a couple of other things which can help, which I shall call Ritual and Stillness. I must mention right now, before going any further, that there is a danger with these. The danger is that you can get so fascinated with them that you forget the main business, looking at yourself. Ritual and Stillness must not replace your Constancy. They must be only supportive. So, Ritual……”
Frank paused again, and looked out over the lights of western Bristol. The distant hills of Withywood looked dark and sinister. Frank seemed to be hesitating, but then found whatever inspiration he was looking for:
“You don’t have to be a catholic to feel the power of the mass. You don’t have to be a hindu to feel the divine chaos and spectacle of their festivals. You don’t have to be a Zen monk to be pierced by the tranquillity of their gentle temples. When a North American Indian raises his hands to the sky, we feel, or want to feel, that he or she is talking to a Great Spirit. We feel something. And within this feeling are other feelings that Constancy will reveal, they are to do with surrendering, to do with wanting to belong.
On the other side there is ritual as an oppressive mechanism. The primary drive in religion comes from feelings, from the Edge and the Silence. But when the saints and prophets die, dogma takes over. People come to religion through growing up with it in their community or through feelings, but either way they have to confront their church or temple as an institution. The institutional side of religions always push belief, rather than searching and introspection. If you are happy following a simple injunction to be good and wait, then fine. If not, then to find out you must look at yourself, and look now! That looking is Constancy, and to help it, Ritual. And that Ritual will be your own, singular expression of what is important to you.
You are not going to learn your Ritual, you are not going to construct your Ritual, you are going to reveal it! This difference is crucial. You allow things that are already within you to come out. You do not create a theory, based on intuition, and then look for evidence. You are not concerned with what is universal for everyone. You are going to reveal what is already deep within your own heart. Your Ritual must float to the surface under its own volition, you must not prize it loose with some intellectual shovel.”
Frank moved off along the path, Sam followed, staring at his feet, lost in a new world of feelings. They turned with one of the hairpin bends of the path, which now began to climb more steeply. To their left a litter bin was smouldering, thin wisps of smoke were spiralling up. Frank ignored the smoke and continued to talk as they strolled upwards:
“Ritual. Why do people pray?”
“No, that’s not enough. That is the act, what drives it?”
“Asking for things, seeking protection, reassurance, saying thank you, gratitude….”
“Gratitude! That’s what I am fishing for. Saying thank you, but doing it manifestly, in a visible way, visible to yourself, not just some interplay of thoughts and ideas secluded inside your head. In these godless days we have lost this. You do not have to believe in a god to pray to. You will find, as Constancy takes you deeper, that you will want to express something that looks a lot like gratitude. Beneath this gratitude you will probably find something else, something greater, more open-ended…..”
Frank paused, grinning wildly. Sam could not wait for him to continue:
“Tell me then, don’t mess about.”
“Awe and respect. You will use your Ritual to express and explore these feelings. This is just for you, for you to say thank you for your life……….”
“Great. Thanks a bunch, planet……….”
“We are not talking about how you feel now, which we have established is pathetic. This is one of the nine holes you will need later. Of course you already feel self-conscious. I should imagine your cynical layers of self protection are working overtime at the thought of saying thank you to….. to what? To whatever! You are partially dead already but when you wake up more, when Constancy has worked some of it’s magic, you will discover some beauty. Yes, beauty. Even you. Even in you. You will want, no, need, to express this, to yourself. Ritual will be the cornerstone of how you express it just to yourself. Quietly to yourself….”
“Hold on. I am loosing all this. What is this Ritual?”
“Let’s make a start. Let’s find some of your Ritual. There is a good little image to help this along. Imagine that you are in a room, with no furniture but a simple small table, say two foot square. You are required, for whatever reason, to put objects on the table which describe, or hint at, your emotional life, all the strong persistent feelings – themes if you like – that you have had in your life. You can’t use words, right? If you place a journal or diary on the table the contents don’t count, it becomes just a thing which represents all the times you sat down to write. It becomes a symbol. Can you imagine this? Can you see such a room?”
“Start with a blank table. Here, sit on this bench. Close your eyes, do this slowly. Place the objects on the table one by one. This table will be examined by someone who knows you as well as yourself, better lets say. It’s a kind of test, an honesty test, perhaps an inquiry for your entrance into heaven. There’s no penalty if you get it wrong. But you must do it. Remember, the things on the table must be symbolic of feelings. Only feelings, not accomplishments. Don’t be too rational about this, put things on the table that you feel strongly about, they don’t have to make sense. This is not some list of your life, some year by year breakdown….
“Ok Ok! I’ve got it…”
“Good close your eyes.”
Sam became instantly aware of the Silence, but it was at a distance. He was fascinated by the exercise set by Frank, it was the ‘inquiry for your entrance into heaven’ that did it, and he was aware that he had this huge feeling of relief brought on by the image of such a test. Sam thought he belonged in heaven, had earned a sort of automatic access for the hard-done-by. He thought he could pass this test easily. But as he began to place objects on the table it all became much harder than he imagined. Some of the objects were too big, took up too much room. Some of the objects did not really represent his feelings, but more what he would have liked to have felt.
The criteria of honesty was more difficult to meet than he would ever have thought, but he saw the reason for it. At last he had a full table and opened his eyes. Frank was nowhere in sight. Sam jumped up in alarm, his fear was almost overwhelming. He frantically looked round and then spotted him at the top of the hill, next to a low wall which went round the base of the Tower. The relief at seeing him was as strong as the fear. Frank seemed to be doing some slow motion exercises. As Sam watched him he became amazed at the strength of his feelings, from blind panic to humbling gratitude in the space of a few seconds. He could feel some bigger feeling wanting to come out, something uncomfortable, something to do with the fact that in just a few short hours a complete stranger – another person – had become so important to him, so important that his sudden absence seemed a matter of life or death. He felt a choking sensation, but buried the feeling as he ran to the top of the hill.
Frank seemed to finish whatever he was doing as Sam arrived. He had his back to Sam, who had time to compose himself, and hide his elation, as Frank turned round. Frank was about to speak but Sam beat him to it:
“Was that Tai Chi?”
“How did the imagining go?”
“Ok, I won’t ask. The imagining was difficult, but I’ve got a full table now.”
“I thought you might have, but we are not quite finished yet. Lean against this wall, bend your knees just a little, close your eyes. Now, can you see your full table? Good. Now, in your left hand you find a small leather pouch, about four inches square, but with a draw-string at the top. Look at the table, and think about the items that you have chosen. Are there any items that would fit in the pouch?”
“Now for the tricky bit. Choose four items, from those small things you just identified, that most represent you. And this is tricky because they should represent you, but, they must also point beyond you. They should indicate the mystery of what Sam is, not just to you, but to the imaginary person who is going to judge your entrance into heaven. If you have four, open your eyes and tell me what they are.”
Sam opened his eyes, but became instantly disorientated. He thought Frank was still standing next to him, as he was when he closed his eyes, and his voice had not changed. But Frank was ten feet away, to his right, sat on top of the wall! At first, Sam was too surprised to talk, but eventually stammered:
“How did you do that?”
“Have you got four items?”
“Tell me then.”
Sam paused, fighting his curiosity, but with a sigh continued:
“My four items are a marble, rosary beads, a shell and a photo of Rochester Castle….” Sam paused again, unsure how to go on but
noticed Frank staring at him intently, he continued:
“I found the whole thing difficult, but this last piece was not so hard, I knew almost instantly which four of the small items I would keep.”
Sam reached in his pocket and pulled out a large blue marble.
“I’ve always loved these things. When I was at school the other kids thought I was crazy because I preferred to look through the marbles rather than play with them. But it’s the blue ones that get me. I always carry one everywhere. If you hold them up to a strong light source, and put them right up close to your eye, touching your eyeball if you can stand to do it, your whole field of vision gets flooded with this gorgeous blue light.”
Sam walked over and handed the blue marble to Frank, who immediately held it up close to his eye as Sam suggested. He continued to look through it as Sam went on:
“Blue is my favourite colour, but there is more to it than just a preference. When I look at the blue through that it makes me feel peaceful – no, more than that – it feels like I’ve come home. I haven’t really tried to describe it before, but now I think about it, the blue…… it feels like it’s alive….”
Sam stopped, and looked at Frank, expecting ridicule at his words running away with him. But Frank was still looking through the marble as he responded:
“Does it hum?”
“Yes! How did…….. Yes, I mean I cannot hear anything, as such, but the alive feeling is a humming, or sometimes a pulse…….”
Frank, seemingly not at all impressed, handed the marble back to Sam:
“Rosary beads. My Aunts were high C of E, disapproved of other denominations and were dismayed that other religions dared to exist at all. I grew up hating the Church, Sunday school, hymns at school, grace at the table – the works. But when I was 13 or so I started to go to our local catholic church, not to a service or to talk to anyone, I just used to sit there. It was an old church, a bit run down, but there were always flowers, and I loved just to look at the candles, and the sun through the stained glass windows. I don’t know why I went, I never told a soul. Perhaps it was just for the peace. On Saturdays they had a small stall in the entrance selling prayer cards, St Christophers, bibles – and rosaries. I bought one. I was so embarrassed that someone might see me. But I felt so good just holding it. I never used it, prayed or anything. It just felt good. I thought the fascination would wear off, but it didn’t. As I got older the interest broadened out; I bought Greek worry beads, Tibetan malas, Islamic prayer beads. It didn’t matter what faith they came from, it was just holding them.”
Sam reached inside the same pocket and pulled out a small string of Greek worry beads, blue china pieces on a silver chain. He offered them to Frank but he would not take them; he just smiled and said:
“A shell. I like all shells, but especially those longer spiral ones and even more especially if they have been partially cracked open to reveal the inner chambers, then worn smooth by the sea. Something that simply grows as part of an animal’s protection, yet, it is so beautiful and intricate. The descriptions of science – even everyday language – are just not good enough. But I’ve never really liked poetry…. I’ve never found a way to describe….. Anyway, they also remind me of the seaside. One of my strongest memories of my parents is being at the seaside with them. I’ve loved the seaside ever since, that is, small English seaside towns. I suppose they represent a kind of…… freedom, I guess……”
“A picture of Rochester castle…..”
Sam paused, and reached out to touch the rough brickwork, ran his fingers over the gritty surface.
“….I have just realised that my four items all relate to when I was young….”
“Don’t worry about that for now, just press on.”
“As a kid I was obsessed with history. Stories from the past, especially the ancient past, really caught my attention. But it was ruins that sent me away. Rochester castle was my favourite; the hours that I spent there. I felt that if I closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I could….. I could open my eyes and see it as it was centuries before. This was a very intense feeling, it was almost a feeling of….. of longing, that’s it! Looking back on it now I suppose that there was some other feeling underneath this one. I wonder what it was…”
“Or is; yes.”
Sam began to feel uncomfortable, an uneasy feeling came over him. But already, some of Frank’s approach was, perhaps, rubbing off on him. He just watched the feeling, just looked at it without trying to avoid it or be carried away by it, not taking sides with the impulses to accept or deny it. It was his feeling, but he was just watching it. Just watching. And he had the most curious sensation. The feeling seemed to become ‘transparent’, it was still ‘there’, but he became aware of another feeling ‘underneath’ it. He did not belong anywhere. The ruins were talking to him. Everybody’s gone. Gone for good, gone forever. In a quiet voice Sam asked:
“Are feelings layered, like an onion.”
The force of Frank’s answer surprised him. Frank slapped his hands together making a sharp noise which seemed to echo under the tower:
“You’re doing it again”, Frank continued, “don’t make theories. You must….”
He paused, looking in to Sam’s vulnerable eyes. He sighed and went on in a more gentle tone:
“I know it’s difficult, you want to understand, you want to make theories, you want to grasp it. But if you make a theoretical structure of all this it will not help you. It will just be the clever side of your Self-Image showing off. Just do the Constancy. The ‘layers of an onion’ image is no good. If you strip away the layers you reach a centre. It’s a centre directed activity. See? You set up a structure like that, with images like that, you get stuck in your idea. You are not assembling a picture of how things are. Constancy will reveal an unfolding, you can not pin it down to something static. At the moment you say – ‘the answer is’ – at that moment, you have stopped being open. There can be no stopping off places with Constancy, no cosy wayside inns where you can relax. You will never be able to beam with pride and say ‘I’ve found it!’ Others work to eliminate contradictions. You must embrace them. Just watch.”
Frank leaped off the wall and landed silently next to Sam, but a look of pain came over his face and he clutched at Sam’s arm.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” He straightened. “Ritual, we must press on….”
“Yes, but how do I use them?”
“That’s for you to find out.”
“Look; don’t worry for now about the specifics. You have found four special, powerful objects. Constancy will open up so many things, if you keep at it. But to give you a hint, you will use them as a focus of respect.”
“Respect for what?”
“Your own life.”
Frank turned and approached the base of the Tower, he seemed weary and hunched over.
SAM followed Frank, who had strolled off left round the base of the Tower. They stopped to read a plaque, Frank read out loud:
“‘John Cabbot sailed to America in 1497’. There’s such an irony here. This hill is named after St.Brendan; legend has it he built a chapel on this spot. In 13-something or other, Lucy de Newchurch, wishing to pursue God in a more fervent way, shut herself up in a hermitage close to the chapel. There is something special about this hill, the irony being that it is now crowned by this ridiculous monument to imperialism. What was it Christ said about the eye of the needle?”
But without waiting for an answer Frank continued round the tower, his hands held behind his back like a pacing school teacher.
“I still like it”, said Sam.
“So do I.”
They came back round to the entrance and Frank approached the doors.
Sam’s words died on his lips as Frank pushed open the heavy wooden doors and vanished into the inner darkness. After hesitating briefly Sam followed. The darkness was total, but from memory he found his way slowly to the narrow winding staircase. He tried to listen for Frank’s ascending footsteps but he could hear nothing.
“How did you know the tower would be open?”
But Frank did not answer. Sam’s voice echoed harshly in the dark and he had second thoughts about Frank. But Sam could not see Frank as a psychopathic murderer, his doubts vanished without trace as he began the long climb.
The stone walls were cold and damp on his fingertips as he guided himself upwards. The darkness gave way to grey as he passed a small slit window, then back to the dark as he climbed on. The small night noises were now absent, muffled by the thick walls. He stopped in the total dark, arms out, lightly touching both sides of the spiral staircase. He could hear nothing except his own laboured breathing.
A most peculiar feeling came over Sam as he stared into the dark. It started with an overwhelming tide of confusion and contradictory emotions which had dominated his recent life, and being aware of Franks injunction to ‘just watch’, he tried to observe the sweeping tide of feelings. But they were too strong, he lost any feeling of distance as the whirlpool of rapidly changing sensations swept him away, they snapped in to place with an almost audible click. Click, he felt all the misery and crushing loneliness of the last two years; click, a burst of anger and defiance, feelings he had hoped to mobilise on the bridge to push himself off; click, he was passing judgement on his suicide attempt, which seemed now childish and pathetic; click, a flood of shame at his failure to handle the day to day matters of being alive; click, horror at the thought of having to go back to his old life; click, fear of having to work out something new; click, weariness at having to go on with the same old bullshit, day-in, day-out; click, click, click ………………
Feelings and images and voices crowded in till Sam thought he might scream, he saw himself as a bewildered stranger who had stumbled into a large noisy meeting with all the delegates on their feet shouting their position and demanding attention. This last image did not click into something else; Sam actually saw a parliament, with all the members shouting and waving papers, the speaker calling for order. And suddenly, it was as if the sound had been shut off. The chaotic parliament became like some silent comedy, all the members laughable in their pompousness and self-importance. The image faded and the vortex of feelings subsided. And as sharp as daylight Sam saw in his mind’s eye the cliffs of Ramsgate, chalk cliffs raising up out of the sand and rock-pools. He saw the promenade below the cliffs where holiday makers wandered slowly in the evenings. The image stayed, pristine and latent with some intense force that Sam could feel but not identify. It was quite different from the waves of anxiety and paranoia that had just left. It was not fear, though the pressing walls were claustrophobic enough. It was some kind of excitement. That was the clue. What had he felt most, when on holiday at Ramsgate, as a kid? The town and the coast were familiar, because he had gone there with his parents every summer for years – and yet, it was always exciting. Why was he feeling this, or something like it, now? Because he was starting again? Perhaps he was starting again! Anything was possible. This was the holiday feeling, like at Ramsgate. There were different rules on holiday, things could change, and his parents were different with him, they were more relaxed, closer, but all was tinged with the bitter-sweet knowledge that it was only for a short time, holiday time. And now this ‘holiday time’ had returned like some messenger from the past, but radically changed, now charged, metamorphosed into something deeper and more vibrant. He had planned meticulously to kill himself, when all along this feeling had been buried inside him. Not just buried, but held down by him. He was his own jailor, he had been suffocating himself. Why? Why?
The full force of this realisation hit home, making him reel on the staircase. There was no malevolent force ‘out there’, making his life a misery. He had some bad luck, that was all. But he himself had turned it into a drama that could not be tolerated. Once again Sam felt the incongruity between where he was now, this marvellous feeling of reprieve, and where he had been just a few short hours ago.
He continued up the stairs, his new buoyancy enabling him to fly up the steps. Climbing a tower in the dark, to join a most unusual stranger, literally a saviour. His curiosity about Frank was now almost impossible to contain. But he got no chance to explore it because as soon as he burst out on to the top platform Frank began a rapid explanation:
“We must talk now about Stillness. Once again I say that Constancy is the mainstay of your efforts, but there are some supportive elements. Ritual we have covered, now we talk about Stillness. Other disciplines refer to Meditation, but I have never felt comfortable with that word, for me that still means thinking about something, contemplation. Stillness is not necessarily the absence of thought, it is the absence of intended thought, given a bodily focus of immobility. Tell me, what does meditation mean to you?”
Sam, was open eyed and still dominated by his new feeling. He had been observing Frank as if for the first time, and was caught out by the question. He quickly managed to think of some things, hoping, nonetheless, to angle his response into some kind of question about Frank:
“As I said before, there was a time I was quite into it, but stopped because of what happened in France…”
“The Silence, and that presence you didn’t like.”
“Yes. I started going on Introductory Days run by various groups, a bit of yoga here, some sufi chanting there and so on. In the end I settled with a Buddhist centre in an old fire station in East London. I didn’t do anything fancy, just sat in the Burmese position, eyes closed, watching my breathing. I used to count my breaths at first, but then I gave that up, I found it distracting. So I would just be aware of each breath. When I sat at home I would set a small kitchen timer to ring after twenty minutes….”
“Yes alright, alright. But what happened?”
But Sam paused. He was aware of himself trying to find the right words, trying to impress Frank, trying to angle the description to show himself in a good light. As he opened his mouth he knew he was saying the wrong thing:
“Well the Buddhists say…”
“Forget the Buddhists! What did you feel?”
Again he found himself drying up. But this time, staring back into Frank’s relentless dark eye he saw simpler truths underlying his mental gymnastics. They were humble undemonstrative truths, overshadowed by the glaring lights of his personality, but he knew instantly Frank wanted them. He found it much easier to speak than he ever imagined possible:
“Well….. I got bored. My knees would hurt. I would day-dream endlessly. I would have fantasies, I would rehearse things I had to say or do, or run action replays of past events, sometimes editing them so they turned out better than the originals. I’d fall asleep, or fall into that weird place just before or just after sleep. I’d get cross with myself for day-dreaming or falling asleep. Then I’d get cross with myself for getting cross with myself and on and on. Sometimes I could see all this as clear as day. Other times I would be lost in it like a maze or fog….”
“Any physical sensations?”
“Sometimes I’d get hot flushes for no reason. Sometimes shivery feelings that would shoot up my back and along my arms, giving me goose-bumps. Mostly I just ached and fidgeted.”
In the following silence Sam could hear the early traffic, a definable murmur now, promising the rush-hour rumble later. No words came to him. He looked blankly at Frank, who just frowned asking:
“What did you do it for then? It doesn’t sound much, just fidgeting and aching?”
“I used to feel very peaceful after the sessions…”
“Is that the reason? Come on, spit it out.”
Sam could almost see the last shreds of a resistance breaking. Something snapped and the last dregs of his cautions and strategies withered. He found himself talking openly and directly in a way that was totally new:
“I wanted to be wise. I wanted to be enlightened. I wanted to be good at something, really good at just one thing. I wanted people to look up to me, I wanted…….. I don’t know. I suppose I thought it would solve all my problems, that everything would come together and be alright. Now I say it out loud it sounds so stupid, childish…..”
“Go on. Don’t stop.”
“I’ve never really felt a part of anything. I guess I wanted to create my own inner belonging, or perhaps to blend in with the Buddhists, become part of their family. With hindsight I suppose I really wanted them to look after me……”
Once again Sam felt himself being overwhelmed by feelings. But he offered no resistance at all this time, as they flooded in. The feeling of ‘not belonging’ was escalating, building up, throbbing like some inflammation ready to burst. Sam saw that in the past he would have done anything to avoid this feeling and although he still felt the fear he watched the feeling spread its wings and expand its power and dread. There were no images, nothing he could describe, just a fear that was physical, he felt his guts go watery and his legs quiver, he reached out, and supported himself by holding a railing. And then the feeling burst like a balloon. He closed his eyes, and saw his parents. He must have been small, the feeling was solid and non-verbal, and slow. He was sat with his back to the sea, water lapping round his bum, legs partly submerged, hands touching the flow of water. He was watching his Mum and Dad who were sat further up the beach, his Dad was leaning out and across his deckchair, giving his Mum a kiss. She was giggling, the wind was blowing her skirt around her knees and rippling the windbreak behind. The first wave of this feeling brought such a powerful sense of loss that Sam had to tighten his grip on the railing to prevent him falling down. He had tried so hard to prevent the release of this feeling. But the fear shredded and dissolved, and a new feeling revealed itself, centred around his Dad kissing his Mum. It was still loss, but now, something more.
He looked at Frank. He could not get away from the bizarre feeling that Frank knew everything that he was feeling. And then he knew. It was not that Frank could see into his mind like watching TV, Frank did not know, word for word, image for image, what passed through Sam’s mind and heart. But Sam now saw that Frank knew, he knew about feelings. That regardless of the specifics, Frank had felt the same, and much more besides. Sam suddenly knew, that however much the specifics vary, all feelings are elements of some greater feeling. That loss of his parents had taken him close to this feeling, and he had drawn away in fear, and this fear had drained him of any new life. Until now.
Sam realised that he had been staring at Frank all this time. He found himself muttering:
“I don’t know what happened.”
“Yes you do. But to get back to our discussion, didn’t the Buddhists tell you that desire for enlightenment is a serious barrier. That to desire desirelessness is a craving, like any other?”
“Yes. But they said to just do it anyway, and just be aware of such desires.”
“And were you?”
“Yes. Well……. no. I suppose a part of me needed it, or something, so bad I couldn’t really look at it.”
“Good. Remember, the Stillness you do is just a bodily focus for the Constancy……”
Frank stopped. It was definitely lighter and Sam could see that Frank had turned pale and grey, only his eyes shone bright. Frank was leaning heavily against the parapet, and like Sam, had one hand holding the railing, when a kind of tremor shook him and made his knees buckle a little. Sam moved towards, reaching out to grab his elbow, but Frank waved him away irritably, sharply saying:
“I’m alright, don’t fuss. We must press on, there is still much to say. Stillness. It’s a quiet pause, which can enhance, but not replace Constancy. Sometimes it may not work; if you have to try too hard, if you have to strain, then stop it. Do something else. If it works you should feel a kind of mild physical intensity. Your body is absolutely still, as if frozen, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – it’s absolutely still though you are not holding it still through tension. Your body should feel open, connected, light, but totally still. Perhaps it sounds contradictory, that you feel as firm, as stable as a rock, yet also empty and energised. Don’t try to imagine or fantasise this. I give these descriptions so you know what to look out for. When it’s right, you’ll know it, if you have any doubt, then you haven’t got it yet. A key element is posture. There are many different kinds of Stillness practice, but we only have time for one -so we’ll do my favourite. Ok let’s do it.”
Frank grabbed Sam’s arm and turned him around so he faced the breeze, then stepped back out of Sam’s field of vision. When he spoke again his voice came slow and measured:
“Now. Close your eyes. Feet parallel to each other about twelve to eighteen inches apart. Most people in the West stand with their knees locked, but you must try to get out of this habit. Whenever you are standing, always keep your knees slightly bent. No, don’t overdo it! Only slightly bent, if you sink too far down your thighs and lower back will ache.”
“Was that Tai Chi I saw you doing down below?”
“Shut up. Don’t talk at all. Concentrate on what I say and on the physical and emotional feelings in your body. As I was saying. This is not an exercise. You do not want your muscles to ache, the principle is simple, you must feel firm, but relaxed. So bend the knees but stay comfortable. If you feel your knees coming together, becoming knock-kneed as it were, don’t force them apart using your legs. Try instead to free your pelvis. It’s a cliché now, how rigid westerners are, especially the English, but it’s true. People feel this rigidity, this tension, in their neck and shoulders but the main holding is done in the pelvis and lower back. There are many disciplines to develop suppleness, but within the Stillness you let go by relaxation alone. If you feel yourself getting tense or locked, wriggle your hips just a little and loosely shake your fingers. Not too much! The emphasis is on letting go, you feel the tension and release it mentally, with perhaps a small body movement. You concentrate on it and eventually you will find a way to let it go. Your pelvis should feel free, as if it was floating, when this happens you will feel a warmth in your lower back, you will be able to feel your spine straightening. Your shoulders should sink down under their own weight and under the weight of your arms, which should begin to feel heavier and heavier, like great lumps of lead. Turn your elbows out so your palms face behind you.
Now the most difficult bit. Making only the very smallest movements feel with your imagination between your shoulder blades and the back of your neck, feel this bit of your spine lengthen. As it lengthens you feel your chin being tucked in slightly….”
“But I felt my spine clicking and this strange itch on the top of my head…”
“Don’t talk! Don’t talk at all. I don’t want any reports. You must just be inside yourself, otherwise the effect will be dissipated. Now. concentrate. Feel your belly. Not with your hands dummy. Just feel it. If you can locate any tension, any holding, release that now. Remember the sequence. Feet first, bend the knees, free the pelvis, shoulders down with heavy arms, lengthen the neck, relax the belly. Now for the final part. Very slowly lift your arms in front of you. I said very slowly! Bring your hands together in front of your neck, about twelve inches or so away, as if you were praying. They should touch ever so lightly, thumbs and fingertips only. Your elbows should feel heavy, don’t let your arms tense up. Starting with your feet, check all the parts of the sequence.
This is the basic posture, maintain the open relaxed feeling. When tension comes, try and release it by just feeling it and letting go. You should have a weird contradictory feeling of being both very heavy and solid in the posture and yet also feel light as a feather, as if you could fly away. Just concentrate on this for a while.”
Sam felt embarrassed being in this prayer-like posture, but he tried hard to follow Frank’s instructions. He could feel tension mounting in his shoulders and neck which showed no sign at all of dissolving through his attempts to ‘let it go’. Before he could register any disappointment Frank was speaking again:
“Now, the finishing touches. Your eyes and your breathing. Eyes, open or closed, no matter, whatever feels good. If you close your eyes, focus them anyway, as if looking at some distant object, don’t focus on anything close up.”
“There’s no time for a detailed explanation, but eyes open or closed, if you are looking at something close up, perhaps even going cross-eyed, this causes a build up of tension, too much concentration in your head. Remember, the aim is to feel light and free all over. All your body must feel connected, like just one body, not an assemblage of parts. This posture, done this way, will bring that feeling. Now breathing. Same principles, don’t ever force your breathing. Just be aware of it. Mouth closed. In through your nose, out through your nose. Just aware of it. Your breathing, after a time, will get lighter. Your breathing, of itself, will get slower, deeper. Eventually, it may even seem to stop. Don’t panic if this happens, just relax, be aware of it, let yourself trust that it will continue its own accord. Just be aware of your breathing. Doing this posture, in the way I have said, not more, not less, will eventually lead you on. Your body knows what to do! That is the feeling that will come. Finally, there is one further thing to do. Now, you only do this at first, in the opening stages of your stillness practice. When you breathe in – and only when you breathe in – tighten your anus.”
“You heard. Tighten your anus. Now this is important. You must not tense up your whole bum, just the ring of small muscles round your arse-hole. This might be difficult and distracting at first, but see if you can do this. Remember, relax everything on the outbreath….”
“Why is this necessary? Isn’t this going to cause a build up of concentration in my arse?” Sam could not stop himself from laughing out loud, and he felt the posture slipping.
“That’s why you only do it at first, and its necessary because it enhances the flow of energy.”
“You mean, like Chi?”
“I knew you would jump at that. Yes and no. Yes, the Chinese have many different names for different body energies, which get lumped together in the west under the name Chi – but no, because your approach is going to be different. You are not going to learn their system, you are going to look and discover your own body, not learn a system from some one else. In the same spirit of Constancy you are going to look, going to feel your own body. It….. it will show you what to do, if you can open up and…….”
Frank stopped, and Sam found his humorous mood slipping away. He resumed the posture that Frank had described and began to watch his breathing. Frank continued, but now his voice was even more urgent and insistent than it had been before:
“Nothing is actually concealed from you. Nothing is hidden. Your problem is that you are in a habit of hiding behind your intellect. This makes you think that the truth is some impossibly distant, unreachable, thing. This hopelessness is maintained by the grip of your suffering. But nothing is hidden. You are hiding you from you. No matter how hard it may seem you can undo that pattern. You can do it. Just look….”
Something in Frank’s voice made him turn round and look at the old man. The expression on Frank’s face was astonishing to Sam, he could not remember ever having seen someone’s face look so open, and yet so clearly powerful. Sam knew instantly that Frank wanted him to grasp this last point, that it was ‘key’ in some way. He found himself speaking, wanting his words to reach out and touch Frank:
“I understand. I can’t force myself to see, but if I just patiently do it, by letting go, I can let myself see.” Frank smiled.
“That if I loose it, I must just gently come back to it. That I am not following any other method or teaching, that I am just looking for myself, at myself, that nothing is secret or hidden and ……”
“Yes, yes, ok. Don’t get carried away. You have the feel of it.”
“But are you saying that suffering is just an inability to see?”
“The Buddhist in you would love that, eh? Still looking for a nice neat little formula? Suffering is real, you fool. Suffering is not caused by not looking….”
“But you said that my suffering is my habit of not looking, that I am hiding me from me.”
“Pay attention. I said your hopelessness is maintained by the grip of your suffering. Suffering is not some perceptual mistake, or some nuisance because things are not ‘right’. It’s a feeling. It’s a feeling! But like any feeling, you let it come, you let it go. Constancy will enable you to do this. Tell me, why do you hold on to your suffering?”
Once again, Frank’s question caught Sam off-guard. At first he ‘saw’ a succession of quick glib answers lining up for use, then he saw them fall away. Then he felt some solid reluctance to look at the question, this stubbornness felt very child-like, infantile even. But he persevered. He then had the strangest sensation of things crackling and breaking up inside in him. He turned his face into the breeze and took a deep, broken breath. He was crying – and he had no idea why. He could feel the strengthening wind press some of his tears back into his ears, could feel the salt (again) in his mouth.
Frank came over and stood next to him. He placed one hand on Sam’s back and the other on Sam’s chest. He spoke gently, in a way that seemed to blend in with the wind:
“Go into the posture.”
Sam did his best, though his limbs felt cold and rigid. Frank spoke again:
“We hold on to feelings by holding our breath. Remember, when big feelings come to sweep you away you must breathe deeply. Breathe deeply to let go of the holding in your body. Now breathe in slowly, but let it out quickly.”
And Sam took a deep breath in, and at the very moment of the exhalation Frank pushed his hands together, causing Sam to violently exhale all the air from his lungs.
“Again!” shouted Frank.
They did it again and again, causing Sam to cry out at the pain in his chest. Just when he thought he could take no more Frank dug his knuckles into Sam’s sternum, and Sam heard himself release such a deep sobbing sound that a part of him could not believe it. He felt his knees give way, but Frank supported him, and made him stand, speaking softly but urgently:
“Keep the posture and close your eyes. Remember to keep your knees slightly bent. Slowly – everso slowly – bend over and let the weight of your arms pull you down as far as you can go. Don’t hold your breath, just let it come and go of itself. Try and feel your neck and shoulders, let that tension flood down into your arms and out through your fingers.”
Frank gently grabbed hold of Sam’s hair and moved his head around.
“Feel how rigid you are holding your head? Your head should swing gently to and fro. Same for your arms. Try and let go of the holding. See if you can……. That’s better. Now very slowly come back up. Whenever you do this remember to do it very, very slowly. Slower ….. good. When you get nearly upright, breathe out, then breathe in, slowly open your arms wide, lowering them on the outbreath. That’s good. Hold the posture, come out of it when you are ready……. How does it feel?”
But Sam could not answer, he was totally absorbed in his bodily sensations. When he bent over he felt drained and empty and weird. But when Frank grabbed hold of his hair and moved his head around he realised he was not empty, he was still holding his body tense. For the first time he could feel that this was something he was doing to himself, he was holding himself rigidly.
At first he could not let go of it, he did not know how, but them somehow he just did it, or it happened. His arms dropped another three inches and his knuckles scraped the stone floor. He had a strange stretching sensation in his lower back, his head felt full and ticklish. As he rose up he had the strongest feeling of some warm force flowing through his body, it felt like his hair was standing on end. When he breathed in he could taste the air, it tasted rich and sustaining. He had the bizarre feeling that he need never eat again, the air felt so powerful, as if it alone could sustain him. His whole body felt light and warm, he felt he could leap off the tower and glide to the ground unharmed. As if from far away, he could hear Frank’s voice:
“Gently shake your arms and fingers, circle your head around. This releases any left over holding…..”
“I never felt like that before…”,
With a shock, he realised that this was his own voice, his own voice sounded strange to him, deeper, fuller, different. Frank spoke again:
“Emotional shock or trauma causes the muscles to go rigid, blocking off the blood supply. Relaxing and deep breathing restores the supply…..”
“But I felt much more than that….”
“Yes, now you get to hear about Chi, or Ki in Japanese, or prana in the sanskrit. I just call it energy, body energy…. only it’s more than just a body energy. Ever heard the expression ‘someone’s walking on my grave’?”
“Yes, it’s when…” Sam stopped and looked at Frank before continuing: “it’s when you get shivers up your spine…”
“Stepping into a shower?”
“And of course, orgasm.”
“But it’s not just physical things like that, can do it…” Sam stopped, to check Frank’s reaction, and saw him waiting quietly to continue: “it’s feelings that move it too!”
“I’ve noticed it in cinemas, in a film I feel really strongly about, I get this rush of something go straight to the top of my head……”
“Remember, your body knows what to do. The emphasis is on letting go of body tensions and patterns of holding. You see, if you practice your Constancy, holding a bad physical posture, it will eventually interfere with the Constancy itself, so letting go of tension is important. Also, there is a direct relationship between the bodily tensions we manifest and the defensive mechanisms set up by the Self-Image. So the total letting go, which is what Constancy is all about, must have its bodily side, and this will involve the release of body rigidity first set up by the Self-Image in childhood. And on this point, a last word of warning. The object is to let go, not to develop a perfect body. Some people get carried away with the pursuit of the physical and the rewards it seems to offer. Some develop amazing powers, and these are attractive. But ultimately, they are a dead end, for the body dies, and all the powers in the world are useless if you have not found out who you are.”
Frank began a slow walk round the platform of the Tower. Sam fell in behind, almost hopping with excitement. His body felt so amazingly light and yet full, he thought he might explode with questions. But Sam kept quiet. It was not just respect for Franks ‘rules’, he felt something knew inside him, he saw clearly now a greedy part of himself that wanted more and more, but behind this greed was an insatiable grasping, driven by fear. Fear and loneliness. He looked at the back of Franks bald head and his thin wrinkly neck and an altogether new feeling flooded through him. This feeling had nothing to do with curiosity, was not driven by fear or vanity, was not motivated by any hope of response and left him feeling empty. Blissfully empty. Sam had no words for it, but later he would call it love.
Frank turned round and was about to speak when he saw Sam’s face. He smiled and said:
“A true feeling, a pure feeling, brings with it a certainty that is complete and undeniable, it needs no verification or interpretation. Constancy will ensure that such feelings can come and go unhindered by the petty-minded Self-Image. But come, there are other things to learn.”
And Frank turned and stepped into the deep shadow of the stairwell.
SAM followed Frank into the dark stairwell, listening to his voice descending slowly in front of him. At first he found it hard to listen to Frank and be mindful of his steps, but after a while, touching the wall with his right hand he found he could concentrate on Frank’s words:
“…….as I said, it’s your feelings that count, so quoting from other traditions is something I only do rarely, and you should avoid for the next ten years….”
“Better make that fifteen years.”
Sam was about to laugh, but something about the echoey sound of their voices in the cold Tower stifled him. His voice sounded loud and brash, yet Frank’s, though echoing, seemed warm and muffled, and in the total dark Sam could not be entirely sure where it was coming from.
“….but there is one quote that I really like, it’s from the Zen tradition and goes like this. ‘Before enlightenment, trees are trees, rivers are and mountains are mountains. During enlightenment, trees are not trees, rivers are not rivers, mountains are not mountains. After enlightenment, trees are trees, rivers are rivers, mountains are mountains’. I like that. I like that a lot.
Before you become aware you have a picture of your own life, during the most intense moments of self-awareness you have no picture of your life, and no judgemental faculty to re-impose one, then life continues, and once again you have a picture of your life. Remember your Geography, you live in the World, then a powerful personal experience blows holes in your Self-Image, and you are at the Edge – or if the experience is strong enough, you are right inside the Silence, where there will be no Self-Image at all. And then it passes. Once more you are back in the World. And the Self-Image will repair itself, or begin to metamorphose into a new Self-Image, which will try to ignore or downgrade the experience, bury it. But the practice of Constancy will weaken the censorship of the Self-Image. So, after Constancy has begun to work its magic you will develop a new attitude towards your life. Your Self-Image will carry on working, but it will cease to be the only way you see things. There will be other visions of your life, which we will call your Trail……”
Frank’s voice paused and after a few steps Sam stopped to listen. No sound at all. He hurried down the stairs, passing through sections lit by a soft grey light coming in through the slit windows, then plunging back into total darkness. Eventually, with a shock, he reached the bottom of the staircase and stumbled where his foot found no more steps. He stepped out of the Tower, and looked round for Frank. No sign. At first, the panic came and grabbed him fiercely, but remembering Frank’s words, he bent his knees a little, and breathed deeply and evenly. The panic subsided, leaving a feeling of trust, and with amazement he realised that he did trust Frank, and that he could not remember a time, as an adult, when he had trusted anyone. A hand touched his back and he jumped three feet forward with a scream! His new poise in shreds he turned to see Frank grinning wildly. With his heart thumping madly and between panting breaths Sam shouted:
“Don’t do that! How did you do that? You were in front of me!”
“I can’t have you going all complacent and sentimental on me! I need a few tricks to keep you on your toes, keep your concentration. We have to talk about the Trail now, it’s difficult.”
Frank walked past the scowling Sam and turned right into the rock gardens, talking as he went. The path being narrow and fringed with tall conifer bushes, Sam had to follow behind Frank, listening carefully. His anger soon vanished as he got caught up in Franks words:
“The Trail is difficult to talk about, especially with someone like you, who will make theories till the cows come home. To some extent, the notion of the Trail is superfluous to the real business – which is your Constancy, for which any theoretical models may be a hindrance – as I hope I have made as clear as day. But you have to live in the World. People change. How they see themselves, what they think of the world changes. We would explain that in terms of their Self-Image changing, their Self-Image builds a new picture of the World for the purpose of getting by in the day-to-day. But after Ignition has occurred, and after Constancy has begun to weave some of its magic, things can get strange. For you, now, there can be no turning back. Despite this, if you become over enthusiastic, if you become carried away in your new life, you may find that new life difficult to sustain. As I said before, this would be like the old man coming in through the back door. Your old patterns would reassert themselves because you had rushed off and burnt up all your energy in some unrealistic endeavour. Some people can sit in a cave for ten years and stare at the wall – but only a very few can do this. Most will give up, the evangelical flame having burnt bright, but briefly. This is where some skill comes in. You have to change your life, you have to confront that mystery in which you find yourself – your own life! But do it in a gentle way, a considerate way. If you do violence to yourself or others, then violence has a way of coming around, with chaos and disruption in its wake. So don’t rush off and join a monastery in the Outer Hebrides, don’t suddenly decide to live with the beggars on the streets of Calcutta. If you have some fantasies like this, what should you do?”
“Just watch them.”
“Exactly. As Constancy goes on you will see how your Self-Image operates; you will see how it loves plans and schedules and dramatic acts of intent and how it hates just being quietly watched.”
Frank sighed, and paused by an ornamental waterfall, turned and looked at Sam. Sam sensed he was leading up to something by the gleam in his eye. When Frank spoke his words were soft and slow:
“So what is the Trail? Your view of yourself changes automatically as the Self-Image does its adjusting. But after Ignition, and especially with Constancy, an alternative will emerge. To differentiate this alternative from the workings of the Self-Image I shall call this the Trail. This creates the right atmosphere because it is more of a location, somewhere you find yourself, rather than a mechanism, which is what the Self-Image is.”
“But how can you tell the difference between the Self-Image and the Trail?”
“You can’t, at the moment. Your Trail will only appear after you have practised Constancy for awhile; but you need to know about it for later. To answer your question, you will be able to feel the difference. Anything your Self-Image deals with will feel well-defended, opinionated, driven, goal-orientated, hard. But your Trail, that will feel impersonal. Rationally, you know that such thoughts are about you, but you won’t feel personally involved. This feeling of distance from yourself indicates your Trail, the further the distance, the more likely it will be a Trail feeling. Now, this is the crux of the whole Trail thing….”
Frank paused again, and leaned in towards Sam, his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper and Sam found himself also leaning in to hear better:
“….there’s a lot of fuss made about fate and free-will. Neither concept is valid. The universe is infinitely more mysterious and complex than either of these totems can possibly hope to match. The short explanation is, both concepts are right – which is the same as saying, both are wrong! Your deeper feelings, revealed by Constancy, will show a far greater picture. As long as your Self-Image is in control, you are driven. It may seem as if you make free choices, but this is only an illusion. Let me ask you, if you suddenly found yourself in a maze, how many choices would you have? To sit down and starve? To try and get out? To talk of any freedom in this simple setting is, ultimately, meaningless. To complain about being in the maze is a waste of breath, you must do something about it, and all you have is whatever you can find at hand. Life is not so different. It may be fascinating to contemplate how you got here, and the million different directions in the maze of life, the flora and fauna in the maze with you – but all that matters finally, is finding out who you are. And how do you do that?”
“By looking – Constancy.”
“Good. Glad to see you are still with me. The Self-Image, as I have explained, is a great survival machine, but is singularly unable to see itself. There is an age old expression, a blade cannot cut itself, a finger cannot touch itself, a thought cannot see itself. So let the Self-Image bumble along, on a sort of automatic-pilot, steering you through the day-to-day, but circumvent it with Constancy. After a while, an impersonal picture of yourself will form, the Trail. And because the Trail is still located in the World, you must be careful of it, watch it as you would your Self-Image. But as time goes on you will see the difference. The Trail will reveal your patterns. These patterns are the habitual repetitions of the Self-Image, and you must learn them well. When you know these patterns well, you will be able to see them coming. You will be able to detect the pre-conditions of a forth-coming situation and know how the Self-Image will react, know what patterns it will mobilise. This alertness to how your Self-Image is likely to react can help your Constancy greatly.”
“So, with Constancy, you are not just watching the Self-Image, but anticipating its actions.”
Frank beamed his widest smile, and grasped Sam’s arms, his voice rose with excitement:
“Yes! Because these two are not the same thing. The Self-Image is slippery. You have to see its effect, that is the only way to be sure your Constancy is deep enough, and this is the only platform you can be sure of, if you want to break free from the Self-Image’s tyranny. When your Trail is this well established you can selectively begin to loosen some of your patterns. You see, if you make changes too soon, you cannot be sure that it is not just the Self-Image taking over, be very suspicious of willpower, of forceful domineering actions. If you rushed off and joined a monastery your Self-Image would spend a vast amount of energy adjusting, and it may come out of it much stronger, even if different than before. No, let your Trail emerge, identify slowly and clearly where you are, then…. loosen your patterns. Make those changes in your life that will make your introspection easier, deeper, even more profound.”
Frank released Sam’s arms and began walking in a circle, round and round a junction of two paths. Sam could still feel heat on the places where Frank had held his arms, and although he was bursting with so many questions, he managed to restrict himself to the matter in hand:
“There’s something I’m not getting here. If the Self-Image is, basically, a survival mechanism, why do so many people follow such disastrous courses. According to you I’ve been completely driven by my Self-Image and I was about to kill myself, hardly survival behaviour….”
“The Self-Image paints itself into a corner. It’s smart, but it is not wise. Its rigidity, a potential strength in adverse conditions, can rebound on it. It can adapt, but only within particular parameters, and as the patterns get tighter it becomes less and less adaptable, but more and more defensive….”
“So you could say,” interrupted Sam all excited, “that the Edge and Silence experiences are positive, in social and evolutionary terms. Perhaps…..” He saw the look on Franks face, “perhaps, they help….”
“Just stop it. Let go. I told you before, we are not developing a theory here. This isn’t a picture of the way things are. These are rungs on the ladder, that you will lean against the wall…”
“And go look for myself. Yes! I understand.”
“Do you?” said Frank, more softly than Sam expected.
Sam was about to respond, but stopped. He literally froze mid-gesture and stared into Frank’s eyes. At first, he thought Frank was laughing at him, laughing inside himself at Sam’s clumsiness and compulsive intellectualising. He saw the battery of his self-defensive responses gear up for assault, and as before, just by watching them, he saw them lose their urgency, and dissolve. He knew, and knew that Frank knew, that he did not really understand. As if from a long way a way, he heard himself speak:
“I understand the words that you use, but not what they mean. I cannot imagine, now I think about it, a situation where I am not able to describe what I am doing; where I am pretending that something has meaning. It’s either meaningful or not.”
“So, when a child, who has not learnt to talk, or verbalise at all, sees something it does not understand?”
“Right. It doesn’t understand, it just experiences…….”
But the words died on Sam’s lips as the penny dropped. He looked away from Frank’s intense gaze, and stared out over the City of Bristol. And the Silence was in him and all around him.
It could have been two minutes, or half an hour. Sam had no way of telling. Slowly, he became aware that he was thinking again. The pre-dawn light was strong now, and he was thinking about his girlfriend, now his ex-girlfriend. She seemed very remote, as if someone else had known her. He looked around for Frank, who was nowhere to be seen. He did not panic this time. He just continued along the path, knowing that Frank would be there somewhere. A little further along he saw six broad steps up to a stone platform nestled amongst the small conifers. On a wooden bench sat Frank, gazing peacefully out over Bristol’s faded dockland. Sam looked at his new friend. Frank seemed very relaxed, one leg casually crossed over the other, arms spread out over the back of the bench. But his face was very pale, white, almost translucent in the early light. He gazed back at Sam, who felt a powerful rush of feelings begin in his chest. Before they could explode Frank spoke:
“Let’s finish the Trail, we must move on. Time is running out.”
“Why is time short?”
“My appointment. Don’t change the subject. The Trail. Now…..”
But Frank just lapsed into silence. Sam walked up and sat next to him on the bench, and together they looked out over the city. The light was strong now, the first rays of sunrise were hitting the treetops of Withywood Hill, about seven miles away to the west. The bird-song, which had been gathering, was belting out at full force. The early phase of the rush hour traffic had begun, with its steady low drone. At the foot of the hill a few people passed, joggers and dog-walkers and a few commuters walking briskly. Sam felt a million miles away from the ordinary world, as if he was a ghost, haunting a vaguely familiar but intangible landscape.
Despite the increase in light and day-time activity their little tree lined dell seemed hushed and peaceful. Frank cleared his throat and spoke:
“Responsibility is the final part of Trail things. In the World, responsibility mostly means duty to various parts of the social world within which you are located. But here, I mean something else. I have mentioned that the whole area of fate and free-will is vastly complicated – but it doesn’t matter how complicated it is, it doesn’t matter how difficult things become. Constancy will show you a process of opening up. Any problem you face, any problem, is only as large as your reluctance to meet it head on. This…. This!…”
Frank slapped his palms together to emphasize his point, his voice getting louder;
“…..simple yet elusive feeling, is where freedom lies if it lies anywhere in this vale of tears. You are not free to win. You are not free to lose. Life comes and goes, nothing lasts. But one thing is always open to you. Confront what lies before you. With Constancy to help there will be no difficulty you cannot endure. With this spirit lies dignity, integrity. What is dignity?”
Normally Sam would have leapt in with both feet, but he held back this time, and slowly let Frank’s question grow inside him. An answer came to him:
“If someone has dignity, integrity, it means they follow their inner predilections, and cannot be bought off, they are not corruptible. They trust themselves, even if no one else does….”
“Yes, but there is more. Something deeper. It is not that someone with dignity has some strong moral blueprint or chart, that they follow like a ship its compass setting. On the contrary, there is no blueprint. But they do manifest a spirit, a spirit you do not have – yet! Practice your Constancy, as time goes on you will sense your Trail, you will know where you are, you will be able to slowly loosen your patterns – the rigidities of the Self-Image – you will eventually balance out all those things that give you pain. The world may be as it is, terrible and yet beautiful – but you will be clear. This clarity will involve being responsible for your actions. When you are you, in a clear way, unequivocally, you will find that you cannot lean on anyone else, cannot blame anyone else, cannot stamp your foot and scream ‘it’s not fair!’. This may sound lonely, but you will find it a fine thing, a treasure, diamond sharp and clear.”
Frank sighed, and looked out at the distant hills, then continued:
“Let me finish Trail things with this image. You can kill an Eagle, shoot it out of the sky, poison it, trap it, burn its nest and destroy its habitat, whatever. But you can never humiliate an Eagle. You can be in the world, be involved in all its patterns and difficulties. But you don’t have to be lost in its games, even if you have to suffer the consequences of those games. Just suffer them.”
Frank lapsed into silence. Sam boiled with questions, but kept them to himself.
SAM watched his questions, and noticed that things were different now. He could see a part of himself ceaselessly forming questions and opinions, an inner voice grinding on and on and on. He noticed how much he hated the voice, how it seemed false, manipulative, shallow. Suddenly Constancy kicked in at some deeper level as he pondered, who is hating? Who passes judgement so easily? Without words, without talking to himself, he saw that a new Self-Image was forming, one cunningly critical of his old Self-Image, trying desperately to incorporate his recent experiences, trying to find ways to ingratiate himself with Frank. He felt a whole new respect for Constancy and was amazed at just how slippery his Self-Image could be. Out of all this a question formed, one not driven manically. He was surprised at how calm his voice sounded:
“Being in the world, seeing its games but being detached, is very hard. What…”
“You’ve missed the point! You should not be detached. You must feel everything. Everything! If you detach yourself, either by being a hermit, or by separating yourself from people and your emotions, you may feel calm and centred, but the real test of who you are is to be you, just you, completely you, in the midst of any social situation, any personal complexity or stress……… Here’s a little story to illustrate my point.” Frank composed himself, and closed his eyes to tell his story:
“Jim was a quiet bloke who worked in the machine shop of a British Rail maintenance depot. One day BR announced that redundancies were to be made. Jim was the only person in the machine shop to lose his job. Down the pub his close friends commiserated.
“Bad luck Jim, tough break”.
“Maybe, maybe. Who knows?” was all he would say on the matter.
Just a few weeks later there was a terrible accident in the machine shop, an explosion killed two and badly injured three of Jim’s ex-work mates. His friends at the pub were marvelling at his luck.
“Maybe, maybe”, was all Jim said.
Jim set up his own small business. Things went well at first, but then a combination of factors beyond his control put him in an impossible position. He had to close up, and the mortgage company repossessed his house. His friends could not believe his bad luck.
“Maybe, maybe”, was all that Jim would say.
Jim found rented accommodation, and arranged to move out his furniture, left him by his Dad. As an old fashioned wardrobe was being carried out a man passing in the street stopped and looked at it, then examined the rest of the stuff in the back of the van. He went inside to find Jim.
“Hello. Are you the owner of the furniture outside? Good. I was just passing, stroke of luck, eh? I can take it all off your hands if you like.”
“Don’t you own the antique shop in the High Street?” Jim smiled. The man smiled too, and made his offer.
In the pub later his friends were jubilant.
“How much did you get?” asked one.
“Seventeen thousand pounds.”
“What! That bloke paid you seventeen thousand quid?”
“No. I went to a reputable dealer in town, got twice what he offered.”
“Just think”, said another friend, “if you hadn’t had to move, and if that bloke hadn’t walked passed at that exact moment, you may never have know how valuable it all was. What fantastic luck.”
With the money Jim made on his family furniture he went on holiday to Australia. He stopped off in Bali on his way back but contracted dysentery and became very ill, missing his flight. He later learned that that particular flight was grounded in Kuwait as a result of the beginning of the Gulf War. He missed six months captivity in Iran.”……..
It’s an exaggeration of course. Or is it?…….”
Frank lapsed into silence, crossed his arms and stared out over the docks. At first Sam had just enjoyed Frank’s theatrical way of telling a story, but the sense of the story had got to him. He tried hard not to dissect and analyse it, to let it just sink in. Eventually he turned to towards Frank with a question:
“If everything is inter-connected…”
“Be careful! The concept ‘everything’ can be misleading. And when you say that everything is inter-connected, in that way, you are in fact, describing a process where things are initially perceived as separate, but at some later stage, connections are revealed. Watch out! Tell me; what happens if, through your practice of Constancy, you no longer make the distinction of ‘separate’ and ‘connected’, what happens if you don’t make that judgement at all? At the moment you see a world of separate things, that’s step number one. You discover there is more to this world than meets the eye, step number two. You try to categorise these connections, that’s step number three. But what happens if you don’t make even that first step?”
A strange feeling had been growing in Sam as Frank’s words unfolded. although he knew he was breathing it felt as if he was choking – literally as if there was something he could not swallow. Frank slapped him on the back and Sam’s words sprang out:
“I can’t do that!”
“Yes! But what you mean is, you can’t think it out, you can’t get your head round it. You cannot think about not-taking-that-first-step because by thinking about it, in any way at all, you have started the first step. It’s a trap, a logical inconsistency. But only for logic, only for words and thinking. Feel what it’s like. Then again, forcing yourself to stop thinking is not good, that becomes too wilful. No! Let the mind think on. Let the Self-Image continue to function, let it steer you through the World. But practice your Constancy and eventually you will find that there are times when you don’t make that first step – your Self-Image may carry on doing it. Let it. But your Self-Image will no longer be centre-stage. You….You…..will perceive differently…..”
Frank’s slap on the back had loosened Sam, but he still could not think straight. He became aware that he was trying too hard to understand, to grasp it all. From somewhere, he let go. As uncomfortable as that was for him – and he could clearly see how driven he was to grasp everything – he let go, and settled back with his uncomfortable feeling of ‘not-knowing’. Frank continued:
“We had better give your mind something to chew on, keep it busy. Which brings me nicely to Elephants…..”
Frank paused and uncrossed his legs, leant forward and rested his elbows on his knees. He reached down and caressed some weeds growing up through a crack in the paving stones. Sam looked at him, and noticed that Frank’s arm was shaking slightly. He was about to speak when Frank beat him to it again:
“This is a wonderful Sufi saying. You know I have misgivings about using things from other traditions, just lifting them out, but this is too beautifully perfect. Here it is:
“Make no friends with
an elephant keeper,
if you have no room for an elephant.”
Frank became quiet again and Sam found himself chuckling at an image of himself, living in a small mud hut somewhere, opening the door and seeing a sad looking man holding a rope. Stepping out of the hut Sam could see the rope leading up to the neck of a huge grey Indian elephant, calmly chewing some grass. He was chuckling at the look of dismay on his own face. He snapped out of the reverie as Frank spoke again:
“It’s a very profound saying. At one level it operates as a simple folksy warning, to be careful of the problems people bring with them, that can all too soon be yours. But by building it into your Constancy it can act as a kind of cautionary pause.
Looking into your past, seeing your Trail and the patterns of your life, you will be able to identify the elephants that you already have. You must accept these completely. You may be able to ease your way out of them eventually, if you want to, but you cannot deny them. If you do, that part of you which originally created them will re-surface later, in some other, or perhaps even the identical, form. Remember, the old man returning through the back door. Confront what lies before you, no matter how difficult. Constancy will show you how……..
There is a balance to be recognised here. You go through life, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but, at the same time you must try and reduce the clutter of confusions. This will happen once you can loosen the patterns of your life. It’s a sort of self-helping cycle. Constancy will help clarify your life, and as your life becomes simpler, less cluttered, Constancy will be easier and deeper.
All this leads to place where you feel you are living your life, not the other way round. This isn’t some simple notion of control, it’s the Self-Image that worries about control. No, this is something much more subtle. I have no words for it, except perhaps to say that you will feel more real, more substantial – solid! When this feeling starts to grow you will never have to worry about elephants again.”
Sam leant forward to join Frank in his semi-crouch, and hesitantly said:
“Don’t jump down my throat, but this is similar to ideas of Karma, isn’t it?”
Frank did not jump down Sam’s throat, but spoke kindly:
“This is a perfect example of how your habit, your addiction to being intellectual is unhelpful to you in this regard. Intellectual analysis is fine for navigating in the World. Let it sort out your worldly problems, keep it for that. But for finding out about yourself it is such a barrier. I don’t need to jump down your throat anymore. You already know this. But anyway, tell me, what is Karma?”
Sam had his mouth open, then stopped. He knew he had done it again but pressed on anyway:
“Karma is the process whereby a person’s actions return to them. As you sow, so shall you reap, but also, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. In a simple religious sense Karma affects your reincarnation, your actions have consequences in this life, and your next. Good karma will ensure a better or more highly evolved next life. With bad karma you get reborn as a cockroach….”
Frank was grinning wildly and shaking his head. He leant back on the bench and was chuckling as he spoke:
“Books! You’ve just lifted all that from books. Have you ever tried to work out any of that for yourself, personally? What it means to you and your feelings?”
Sam was about to answer but stopped himself. He saw that he wanted to explain to Frank that he did not believe those notions, that he was not naive, that he leaned towards the more complicated Buddhist notions of karma. But he saw that they were still just notions, for all that, and what he was really wanting to do was just impress Frank. And then he saw, instantly, in the blink of an eye, he just wanted Frank to like him. That was what it was all about. No matter how clever the ideas, it was all a mechanism to get people to like him, to admire him. They would have to like him when they saw how clever, how brilliant he was! He turned everything into a debate, a contest, which he would, of course win. And then, everybody would like him, the winner. And if there were no people around, he did it anyway, having arguments in his head, a fantasy rehearsal for the acceptance he would surely win eventually. He saw all this with a transparency that it never had before. It was pathetic. He was pathetic!
And then he paused. Oh clever, very clever. Who was doing this lofty appraisal? Who was judging and handing out compassion now? He suddenly felt sad. He felt sorry for the little boy of his past who was living on inside himself, who had found it necessary to strive so hard. He no longer felt sorry for himself in the old way, the self-pity and the vanity that had lead him to the Bridge. He felt compassion for the young Sam, who had never believed that anyone liked him, who felt he had to fight for someone’s – anyone’s – love or respect. For the first time, he did not mind that he did not know; he knew that his fear of not-knowing was bound up with his desperate need for acceptance. He could see, now, a possibility of living peacefully with not-knowing. If he did not know what he felt, then he would just wait – and just watch – until he did. Wait for his true feelings. His answer to Frank was simple:
But Frank had stopped grinning. He seemed to have sensed that something had changed for Sam. He continued in his slow steady way:
“Forget about karma. Just practice your Constancy, let your Trail emerge, identify, slowly, the patterns of your life, then in the fullness of time, loosen them. Don’t fight your Self-Image, let it do its stuff, but watch it, like a hawk….”
“Just now, I saw a new Self-Image at work, starting to take position and be critical of the old me. It’s very strange. I’ve just had some of the strongest feelings and I can’t describe them. It’s as if there are other bits of me, as if there is someone else inside me…”
“Watch out! You can see now that there is no unified you. The Self-Image is not nearly as integrated and in control as it likes to think it is. But it doesn’t matter how many different bits of you there are, doesn’t matter now many voices inside clamouring for attention. You must take responsibility for all of them, they are all you, even when they don’t feel like it.”
“I can see that responsibility thing. In order to see my patterns, I must accept them, even when they result in things that are not my fault. This means accepting not only what they are, but also what they might do, my propensity to recreate the same relationships, the same habits, same old struggles. After accepting them I can slowly loosen them…….” Sam lapsed into silence, but when he looked at his new friend, Frank was just smiling at him.
What Do You Want?
A jogger came shuffling through the rock garden. Sam suddenly realised that time had moved on. The city was much busier, noisier, the familiar drone of the traffic had risen and the rush hour was in full swing. Sam felt tired, deep bone tired. And yet he felt elated. It was not a bubbling with excitement, or a need to jump up and dance. This elation felt like a steady pulse, a jubilant heartbeat. He could cancel the cheque to Greenpeace, write them another one of course, but keep some of his cash. He would see Jackie and just simply apologise. He would pack up all his stuff, maybe give it away, fly to Australia and get any old job, perhaps even go back to hospital portering. A new hemisphere for a new life! ………. And then he saw what he was doing. Saw the fantasy unfolding. He smiled and turned to speak but froze. Frank looked terribly ill, his face was as white as a sheet, his lips bluish and his eyes glazed.
But Frank did not answer. He was leaning back into the corner of the bench, his hands were shaking, his mouth was slightly open and his breathing thin and ragged. Sam moved over and put his hand on Frank’s shoulder, speaking softly:
“Frank!…. Frank?….. What’s wrong. You look terrible. We should get you to a doctor.”
Even as he spoke Frank seemed to recover, his breathing improved and some colour came back to his face. After a long exhalation Frank shook his arms and turned his head from side to side. When he spoke his voice was quiet but clear:
“No doctor. No time for that. We have two more holes in the boat to talk about…..”
“We should get you to casualty, maybe…..”
“No!” The force of Frank’s refusal took Sam by surprise.
He was about to argue when he realised that it would be a waste of time. And besides, he trusted Frank. Frank must know what was best. Sam shrugged and Frank continued:
“Constancy will change all your life, but there is one aspect that we must now focus on…..” He paused for a moment and sighed, but
when he continued his voice was stronger and his eyes shone again:
“All your life you have felt isolated and far away from people. But of course, your hidden agenda – a desperate need for love and acceptance – was driving you, forcing you to get as close to people as you could. Your need was insatiable because it never stood a chance of real fulfilment, you never believed people when they expressed love or affection for you. The very thing you wanted, you could not accept when it was offered…..”
“How do you know all this? I haven’t talked…”
“But you have talked! It was in your words, if not in their actual meaning. As Constancy develops you will learn not only about you own Self-Image, but about other peoples’ as well. Intuitions that are available to everyone will grow stronger for you, you will have feelings about people as you talk with them, these feelings may be at great variance from the factual content of the discussion.
Whenever people talk to each other, they are sharing something. Not just the words, and not just the meaning of the words, but other things. People can grow close to each other – and vice versa – even when they are just talking about the weather, because other communications are going on as well. As Constancy opens you up you will feel the possibilities of the closeness that you have always wanted, and it is just at this time that you must be careful, for now, you will perceive the hidden agendas of others, their suppressed longings. You will perceive that they are not just sharing things with you, you will see that their sharing is loaded. The more Constancy takes root the more impossible it will be for you to collude with the loaded sharing of others.”
Frank paused and looked up at the sky. Sam had not seen him so lost for words. When Frank continued the tiredness was evident in his voice:
“This eighth hole in the boat may seem strange. You must just remember my words, they will have more meaning later on. The pain and suffering in the world is going to be much more visible to you, and as your understanding goes deeper and deeper, you will feel the urge to help people more and more. You must be careful, remember the ‘Maybe Maybe’ story, remember the elephant keeper story. You can never see, fully, how things are going to turn out, it’s impossible to see all ends. Even the most sincere intentions can lead to a disaster. But there is a way out of this impasse. It’s simply this: they must ask first.”
“I see, is that why you made me ask you to save my life?”
“No! I did not make you ask. It was on the cards that you would, but it was not a forgone conclusion. In a situation where you feel quite sure of someone’s need, you can open the door to people, you can say: ‘What do you want?’, or somesuch. You can open that door, but they must walk through, and they must walk through it clearly and unequivocally – even if you know, they don’t know what they are doing.”
“But why? If I’m certain I can help, why the performance…”
“Yes. They ask, that’s the only way you can be sure that you are respecting them.”
“So, if I am walking down by the river, and I see someone drowning, I should say: ‘Er, hi. Excuse me, but do you want saving?”
“Don’t be daft. You would jump right in and save them. But that would be your choice. Remember the elephant keeper story. You save that person, you take on his elephants. Perhaps you save that person and he later goes on to be a mass-murderer, a child killer. Well, you can say: ‘how could I know, it’s not my fault?’ You couldn’t, and it’s not your fault – or is it? Perhaps it’s not that easy. Despite any intentions you had, you are connected, you are involved! You see, it’s impossible to know how all the ends will work out. But the way of clarity – the way of Constancy – entails resolutely accepting responsibility for all the elephants that you have accumulated, even those, perhaps especially those, which are not your fault, in the normal everyday sense. And, you must wait, before sharing your deeper feelings, for people to ask first….”
“But what difference does that make?”
“It means you don’t take on their elephants.”
“But how does that happen?”
“It’s a mystery. The respect thing is important, but it’s not the whole story. They ask first, and it establishes the right relationship.”
“You mean they are beholden?”
“No. There is no debt involved. When you are clear, and sharing of yourself deeply, without any unnecessary ego or hidden agendas, true feelings are passing through you. You cannot claim any credit for that, because it won’t feel like you, your Self-Image will be sat on the sidelines as the Edge and the Silence take over, your Self-Image is peripheral to this communication. The point is, you’re trying to by-pass their Self-Image! No debts involved in this. But you cannot by-pass their Self-Image unless they give you permission.”
Sam stared at Frank, and the full impact of where Frank was coming from hit home. But Sam’s Self-Image was not going to give up that easily. As if from a distance, he heard himself speaking:
“But, what happens if two clear people meet. Do they just stand there in total silence?”
“Ha! Your wonderful logical mind. They might, and it would be a very meaningful silence, more meaningful than a million words spoken by politicians or the like. However, as you know your own Self-Image, so shall you know others, and when you meet someone whose sharing is not loaded……..”
Sam was staring again. He felt peculiarly paralysed. Within himself he could feel powerful emotions churning. He wanted to talk, but could not because he did not know whether it would just be the mechanical mouthings of his Self-Image, he wanted to impress Frank with his new insight. And then he saw this process and grew disgusted with himself for wanting to creep up to Frank, and then he saw his anger with himself and hated it, and then he saw himself judging himself, and then he saw himself analysing his self-judgement. And then, and then, and then… ….and it went on and on, round and round. Frank reached round and thumped him on the back speaking loudly:
“Don’t hold your breath! If you feel yourself getting in to some kind of impasse, watch your breathing. Just be aware of your breath coming in and going out. That’s better! Just be aware of it, don’t do anything fancy, don’t force yourself to take deep breaths, just watch it. Good, that’s better. Remember, you are just watching your thoughts. It is the Self-Image that gets caught up in correcting them, analysing them, harassing them like an over anxious sheep-dog herding the flock. Let it all go. Trust your mind, you will not loose it! All the clever intellectual equipment will still be there, ready to leap out and dazzle people. Just watch it. Let it sit quietly on the sidelines until it is really needed.”
Frank rapped his arms round the back of the bench, crossed his legs and stared out over the docks. He was smiling to himself. And it seemed to Sam that Frank’s skin had become even more strangely translucent, almost as if he was glowing. He still looked ill, but he seemed now relaxed. Sam felt his mental faculties returning, seeing them now as some boring old friend he was fond of, but no longer impressed by. He saw some questions forming and he let them out to play:
“Frank. Let me see if I’ve got this right. You are saying that any communication between people may, or may not, be loaded with their hidden agendas. And because of Constancy, I am not going to want to collude – your word – with their hidden agendas. And when some person wants to get to know me, or know these things that you have told me, I must not share my deeper feelings with them unless they ask first. They must ask first because I will, in effect, be undermining their Self-Image by talking about these things. Now, in order to maintain mutual respect in this, I must gain their permission in advance – and that’s why they must ask first, even though they may not know what they are letting themselves in for.”
“Yes, by asking you first, they can then later accept the elephant of having done so. Don’t forget, we are all asleep until we wake up. You are not responsible for their being asleep. But if they come to you and say: ‘am I asleep?’ You say………..?”
” ‘Do you want my help?’ ”
“Yes! Spot on. Because if you just said: ‘yes, you’re asleep’, it would be one more judgement in a life full of judgements, you would be entering their own debate inside their Self-Image. But if you present them with a choice, then you are not colluding with their Self-Image. After that, you can, in one way or another, introduce them to Constancy, and so on.”
“I can foresee a situation where someone says: ‘nice out today, isn’t it?’ And I have to say: ‘what do you want?’ ”
“Oh dear, a million miles away from the spot. Wake up. Don’t confuse two things. People are communicating every second of the day with varying degrees of loaded sharing, you take part in that as best you can, knowing that Constancy is your guide, and it will eventually reveal more and more. But if at some future time – and it will happen – someone wants more, at that crucial watershed, they must ask first. But inside your question is a grain of truth. Even in small fleeting ways you will become someone that people feel unsure of, someone they feel uncomfortable with, because, you will not be colluding with their loaded sharing. They will sense this. Some will be drawn to this, they will think that you know something, and by then, you might.”
Let’s Look Anyway
“TIME is running out, we must now summarise”, announced Frank in dramatic tones. He stood up and began pacing in front of Sam, he seemed agitated and pale but his footsteps were firm enough, and his voice was clear:
“The nine holes – called holes in the boat because I wanted to remind you that any teaching worth its salt is temporary – are aimed solely at getting you to look at yourself. Holes in a boat that will sink when you no longer need it, leaving no trace to be fossilised into dogma. The first hole was Ignition. Ignition is the process whereby someone is drawn into their own inner life. The mechanism of this can be anything, absolutely anything – the important thing is connecting with the mystery of an inner life, that they perceive themselves as inside this unfolding mystery. For you, this took the form of recognising the Silence, an experience that you had already had, but buried under fear and incomprehension.
The experience of the Silence was a perfect key, a perfect Ignition, as it challenged the dominance of your Self-Image; Ignition should do this, it should upset and unsettle. Its function is to open the door that the Self-Image is trying to keep closed – not by force, force is a Self-Image tactic – but by stealth. The second hole in the boat we called, I am going to die. We called it this to place the emphasis in the right place, your very own personal inevitable and irrevocable death. Knowledge, personal and intimate knowledge, of your own death is essential. Whatever it takes to drive the lesson home – sit in graveyards, watch post-mortems, imagine in great detail the decomposition of your own body – whatever! Real knowledge of your own death is vital at an early stage of nine-holes introspection.
The third hole was the most important, all the others are meaningless without it. Constancy!” Frank slapped his hands together and repeated the word over and over as he paced up and down. He stopped and stood in front of Sam and spoke, staring in to his eyes:
“Constancy. So simple to describe, and yet so hard to do! And so profound – truly, a lifetimes work. Constancy is just watching yourself, being aware of yourself, but doing this with such an intensity, every single second of every single day – for ever. This true introspection only works if you do it all the time, constantly. It’s no good doing it just once a week, or even once a day, or even once a minute – it has to be constant. And if you loose it, which you will, time and time again, gently come back to it, don’t punish yourself. There are two things which support Constancy, and they are only supportive, not alternative. Ritual is the discovery of powerful personal symbolic objects which are used to focus your awareness of your life in this world. Stillness is the bodily expression of your Constancy practice, in which, you let your body reveal its energy patterns. I talked of something I called the geography; which is the World, the Edge, the Silence. The World is………..what are you doing?”
“I’m trying to find something to write on, I want to remember all this.”
“Writing won’t help you with this.”
“But how will I remember it all?”
“You won’t remember it all now anyway, but it will surface when you need it. All you need to remember now are the actual nine holes, don’t worry too much about the details. But there is something that will help. Our walk. The walk itself will help. You must remember all the nine-holes, see the list in your head. Remember our walk from the bridge to here. If you get stuck struggling to remember a particular aspect of one of the holes, think instead of part of our walk where you heard it, try and remember what we saw and when. The walk itself will then act as a memory aide, you will remember everything, ultimately.”
“So, all I have to do is go over the walk in my mind, from the beginning, until I get to the bit of the walk which corresponds to the bit of a hole I can’t remember.”
“And then, just try and picture in as much detail as you can the physical surroundings, what you are trying to remember will eventually pop up. You can use this technique for all kinds of things.”
Sam looked at Frank, and grinned. When he spoke he slowly shook his head:
“This was all planned wasn’t it?”
Frank was silent, so Sam continued:
“You knew that the walk would lend a structure to what you wanted to say. It’s not – oh by the way it can help you remember – you intended it to do so. And this isn’t just for me is it?”
Frank was still silent, and Sam was felt some inspiration rising in him:
“What is your appointment?”
“We must finish summarising the nine holes.”
“What is your appointment!?”
“After…… I’ll tell you after. Promise. But let’s finish first. Where was I?”
“Yes! World, Edge, Silence. The World, the everyday world which is everything that can be known and explored rationally. The World is perceived by the Self-Image. The Self-Image is itself a collection of things I called Reference Points. Reference points are just things, bits of data if you like; the Self-Image is made up of the most important of these, from a survival point of view. Survival in its widest sense, social, psychological, not just biological. But the Self-Image is so efficient it becomes a tyrant, censoring perception and especially feelings.
The World is not the only realm available to us, there is the Edge, a place of dreams, strong irrational feelings, omens and mysteries. The Self-Image can comprehend Edge experiences, but only to a limited extent, eventually its system of understanding breaks down. It will then seek to suppress the experience. But the Edge is not just at the end of the World, it is between the World and the Silence. The Silence is a profound and total experience which no words can do justice to. It scares the shit out of the Self-Image.”
Frank stopped, and stared out over the docklands again, as if pondering what to say next. But when he turned to look at Sam he said:
“Where was I?”
“You’ve done World, Edge, Silence, and you’re about to start on hole number six….”
“Yes. The Trail. After Ignition has occurred, and you know your own death and your Constancy has been growing you will begin to have an understanding of your life no longer exclusively controlled by your Self-Image. This understanding I called the Trail. Your Self-Image dominates the way you see your self, but after Constancy has established itself there will be another way of seeing. This one will feel detached, impersonal, not goal-orientated. Because the Trail is still located in the world you must be careful of it, be wary of new Self-Images. Let them form, let them do their stuff. But keep up the Constancy and eventually you will see your life differently, your Trail will help you loosen some of the patterns set up your Self-Image.”
“I don’t understand the difference between the Self-Image looking at itself and the Trail?”
“You won’t, until Constancy has worked some of its magic, but look at it this way; what’s the primary function of the Self-Image?”
“Survival in any manifestation, survival of your body or your status, whatever the Self-Image thinks is important. But your Trail will not make such value judgements, it will seem curiously empty. So shall you know it. Next, Elephants. What number are we?”
“OK. Make no friends with an elephant keeper if you have no room for an elephant. Remember, to be free, you must see where you are. You must see all the baggage you have accumulated. You must accept responsibility for it – all of it – before you can go on to change the patterns of your life. As Constancy deepens you will see others more clearly. Watch out for what I called loaded sharing, where another’s hidden agenda is weaving itself into the conversation. Be clear, even when it hurts. The eighth hole we called ‘Tell me what you want’. Remember the ‘Maybe Maybe’ story, it is impossible to see all ends, the best intentions may turn out to be disastrous. If you want to help people they must ask first, this is not so they become beholden to you, it is because of what you might do to them by undermining their Self-Image. By looking at yourself, really looking at yourself, you burn the bridge behind you, there’s no way back to the normal world. You cannot now make the world normal for others, all you can do is………..offer them nine holes, or rather, offer them you, a clear unloaded you”.
Frank paused. Sam suddenly thought of something:
“That’s only eight. You said there were nine holes in the boat.”
“So I did. The last is something personal from me.”
Frank walked to the edge of the platform and then turned to look at Sam, he struck a dramatic pose and recited:
“Piers end, nights end
the moonlit waves
offer no comfort.
Let’s look anyway.”
Frank strolled back to the bench and sat down.
“What was that?” said Sam.
“It was a poem you dummy, can’t you recognise a poem?”
Sam sulked into a silence, but then from nowhere a question came:
“Where does the poem come from?”
Frank smiled and leaned back into the bench. He sighed and spoke:
“Good question. Many years ago my wife and I were travelling through Europe, we stopped for a while at a beautiful Greek island. One night, we were sat on some netting, at the end of a long pier. I married late, she was a fine woman, and although we were very different, it was ok. I was always quiet and inside, you know, I only went out to certain people. But Judith was an angel, she went out to everyone. As we were sat on the pier I became aware that I was sat facing the sea, staring out over cold waves and the moonlight. She was sat next to me, but facing back to the town, the lights of the harbour and its tavernas, the lights of other people. The poem came to me then. You know there are a million and one strange things under the stars, but there are connections between people.”
Sam, entranced by this briefest glimpse of Frank’s life was about to ask for more, when Frank interrupted him:
“Ok, my appointment…”
Frank, seeing the look on Sam’s face stopped.
“What, you don’t want to hear about the appointment after all?”
Frank laughed at Sam’s indecision, but went on before Sam could choose.
“I shall tell you about the appointment, and the telling takes the form of a little story:
A wealthy and contented merchant was strolling through the market, gazing at the range of goods on display. He stopped abruptly. Across the stalls he saw Death looking at him. He knew instantly that it was Death, you know, capital ‘D’. But Death was not doing anything, just standing there, staring at him. He rushed home to his wife, in great distress.
“Wife, wife! I’ve seen Death. He’s come for me!”
“What! Calm down husband, calm down. Tell me what’s happened.”
The merchant told of his encounter, and his wife, a slower wiser person said:
“So, Death didn’t actually come up to you?”
“Death didn’t speak to you?”
“Then it’s obvious, Death was not there for you at all, he was there for someone else.”
The merchant was much relieved at this, but was clearly still in a highly agitated state. His wife seeing this said:
“But let us be safe than sorry. Go to your cousin in Ismara. I will go to the market and speak to Death.”
And that is what she did. As the Merchant mounted his fastest horse and sped off to Ismara, she set her face in to its sternest expression and went to the market. She soon found Death, for he is unmistakable, but was disturbed that no one else could see him. She took a deep breath and spoke to him:
“What are you doing here, why did you scare my husband so?”
“I have come for the Butcher over there.”
“But….. you have not come for my husband?”
“I have an appointment with your husband tonight, in Ismara.”
Frank sat back and gazed out over the city. Sam felt completely torn, he desperately wanted to ask Frank questions about his wife, about how he knew the things he knew, about why he was telling him, he wanted to ask about himself – a million and one questions rolling around his head. But the full meaning of Frank’s story rose up and drowned out all else. Sam leaned forward to look closely into Frank’s eyes, and asked:
“Yes, in about five minutes, give or take a minute or so.”
Sam hurled himself back on to the bench, feelings swirling around even faster than the questions had done. His mouth opened but no words came out. The feelings coalesced into three main strands, each one pulsing like a heartbeat: disbelief, suspicion and fear. Disbelief, because it all seemed too much, just too much. Suspicion, that this was some ploy of Frank’s, some test. Fear, fear of being alone again. Sam could feel shards of himself falling away. The wind blew, and Sam’s new nakedness made him shiver. He turned to Frank, and just one word popped into his mouth, taking by surprise:
But Sam was blown away again by his feelings. Frank spoke again:
“You are looking at me. That’s good. And now, as surely as you see me, you know it’s true…………. don’t you?”
Sam nodded. Frank continued:
“So……….. you had better dredge up your best question, and soon.”
As if a switch had been thrown, all Sam’s feelings burst out:
“But you can’t die! You can’t just die! I’ve only just found you, I mean, I……….. There’s so much I……….. Please.”
“Sorry. As dreadfully inconvenient as it is for you, I’m afraid I shall die quite soon.”
Frank’s words were gentle but Sam felt stung by his own selfishness, he reached over and laid his hand on Frank’s wrist, and spoke with more sincerity than he had ever felt in his whole life:
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…….. It’s just……. How do you know? You might be wrong, just ill……. we could go to a hospital….”
“No. No point. Constancy is the most important part of your practice, remember, Stillness is the more physical aspect of Constancy practice, but Stillness brings its own knowledge. After a long time you can get to know the patterns of your body energy. You can know them so well that you feel death coming. I’ve known for sure for about six months, a little more energy drains away each day. As we sit here I can feel my life drain away into the ground. I shan’t stand again….”
Sam was shaken by Franks’ response, but his following words were very quiet:
“Don’t waste these last seconds, let your feelings float out and look inside. Ask me the question that is waiting there.”
Sam sighed and slumped into the bench. But an urgency took hold of him and he began to frantically search his mind for the most powerful question. All his questions ran away from him, vanishing like rabbits down a hole. He remembered Frank’s instruction; he looked at his panic and tried to let his feelings go. From nowhere a question came:
“Can you see into the future Frank?”
A ghost of a smile crossed Frank’s pale face, he whispered:
“I see you with someone, yes.”
“Who is she?”
“You will know him when you see him.”
“Shush now! It’s time………”
Frank collapsed back on to the bench and Sam leaped to his feet and began to shake Frank’s arms, shouting:
“You can’t die, you just can’t die! You know so much. I need so much…………”
And Sam stopped suddenly, and stood back. The strangest feeling came over him, a pensive, drawn feeling. The wind had stopped and there was no sound. In the Silence Sam looked at Frank. His lips had turned blue and his skin had turned a sallow yellowish colour, his limbs, which had been twitching horribly, relaxed. Sam knew, with a certainty of knowing that he had never experienced before, that Frank had gone. He looked at the body in front of him, although he knew intellectually that it was Frank’s body, or his ‘remains’, he saw that there was nothing of Frank left. He turned away to look over the town. And walked down the hill.
SAM walked down the hill, or rather, it felt like he was floating down. His legs became rubbery and he slumped on to the ground. He found himself staring intensely at the blades of grass. He looked up. At the bottom of the hill, about thirty yards away, stood a beautiful old woman. The breeze, played with her long silver hair. She was staring up to the top of the hill, her arms were folded, leaning back on one leg, the other moving a little, her foot playing with the gravel in the road. She brought her gaze down and pierced Sam with her look. It must have been seconds, it could have been hours. She turned, got into the back of a huge black car, and spead away. Sam stared after her………
“Are you alright?……..you ok mister?…….oy.”
It was a ten year old boy, frowning at Sam:
“Hey, you ok?”
“Thank you. I’m fine.”
And it was.
“my heart burns like fire
but my eyes are as
cold as dead ashes”.
( Soyen Shaku )
© Dave Mason : entire contents, Shoreham by Sea, UK, 2014
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