So, last time I posted was in May 2021, about anxiety.
I had just finished a clean draft of a book about Spinoza while wintering with my parents in Spain, and returned to my old room in Oxford into ten days of state-mandated self-isolation and a full frontal existential crisis.
I had spent the previous four years with absolutely no quarter given to what I was concretely going to do as a “career”. And so, I found myself in a position where I had run out of cash and independent income, and had no qualifications I would ever really want to use.
I needed to find a job, and felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to figure out a realistic plan for the decades ahead.
Cue complete meltdown.
The first thing I did upon emerging from quarantine was go to tea with Emeritus Professor Richard Gombrich, who gave me helpful advice.
I’m afraid you’ve simply had too much time to worry about yourself.
Take care of other people and you should start to feel better.
A position had recently opened up at an Effective Altruism-aligned organization called “Center for Wellness Studies” or something. When I asked him if he thought it was a good idea to apply, he gave me an odd look.
So you think it’s a bad idea?
A twist of the mouth.
I simply don’t see how it will solve your problem.
That helped. And it’s a fiendishly pithy insight into altruism, self and other.
Professor Gombrich is very wise. I love him very much.
I spent a few days with my dear friend Oleg Giberstein and his soon-to-be wife Shevy, where I finished the Great Paralysis post.
His exceptionally tender, motherly care definitely helped steady the ship a little.
I got back in touch with my delightful former professor, the bite-sized powerhouse Kalypso Nicolaidis.
Despite the few hours we’ve spent together, she’s something of a beloved aunt. Visiting her deliriously beautiful house was healing; we conversed about Messianism and Levinas, and she offered to hire me as a research assistant for a project on Planetary Politics — an attempt to articulate a more universal political vision than the “international” or even the “global”.
I had a skype call with my dear friend Théo in my back garden the next day, and told him that this felt like God was giving me a chance to make up for my wayward ways and get back to public policy and civic engagement.
…I think it’s more that God is giving you an opportunity to prove to yourself that that’s not what you really want. [And thus settle the doubts.]
I suppose I might as well put down some of the other things he said this year that really stuck with me.
Remember that no matter how bad it is right now, you won’t feel this way forever. It is genuinely a phase.
A pretty fundamental trait of yours, David, is that you need permission to exist.
My key memory of this is when we were staying in your family friend’s place, and you kept shushing us when we went for a walk outside, for fear of disturbing the neighbours.
And it’s like… you’re not a squatter, David. You’ve been given permission to house-sit by the owners… you’re allowed to be here.
You can afford take up more space, David. You can have permission to occasionally voice your discomfort. You’ve ethically earned that right.
You say you have no idea who you are, but… you do know who you are.
You’re a writer.
It’s just that the pandemic (and capitalism) have taken away the social context which would make that story plausible.
(Further to this point. A few months previous, my friend Agnibho had said: “Despite all the spiritual accomplishments, I still view you as a sort of modernist artist. The visionary breakthroughs and Messianic intimations are risky research in service of the composition of a truly worthwhile novel.”)
Someone intellectually curious like you, David, will get the right answer to a thousand things. You’ll come across some bit of news or media and instantly come up with the right read.
Trouble is, no one can be a Goethe in this age.
For one thing, you’d have to stop everything else — stop taking in new information, moving onto the next thing — to write about it. And that’s hard enough.
But then you don’t just have to write it… you have to get it published. You can’t just hand your latest draft it over to the editor of the local periodical who knows you personally and be done with it — you have to push to get it printed ahead of everyone else’s take.
Then you have to promote it yourself too — the publisher will assume you’ll take on part of that burden through your Twitter followers, etc.
And then — and this is really the final straw — you have to publicly defend it. You can’t hide anymore — everyone knows you’re still there and can access their opinions, and you are expected to actually engage with them. Which we could never be arsed with. Because, you know… fuck that.
So someone like you doesn’t really have a place in the political economy of today’s intellectual life.
I remember reading somewhere that writing is saying the things you wish you’d said to the four or five people who really matter and are now far away.
I’m happy these days. Well, not happy… but I’m where I want to be.
Which is to say, I’m left largely unmolested to enjoy my freedom.
My freedom to… well, to be alone in cosmic abjection.
Which is the only real freedom there is.
Anxiety basically arises from a too-high and a too-low opinion of oneself.
Having a non-demanding job, with a few hours alone at a desk each day to think, is truly the right means for intellectual labour.
[But what about being removed from daily discussions of the topics of note? Wouldn’t that take you out of the context necessary to produce something truly original?]
I’m becoming increasingly Platonist on these questions — that all knowledge is really memory.
It’s mostly a task of going over things, interpreting, rephrasing — chewing, essentially — for ten or twenty years, until you’re ready to start reminding the world that people thought before the present day.
Given time and determination, I can overcome my natural facility with words and concepts.
See, David. People will look at us and be somewhat perplexed. They’ll think we lack ambition. Which isn’t really true.
We have the highest ambition — to set the universe alight with a thought.
It’s just that we’re missing all the middle cogs in between [the thought and the universe].
As soon as I landed my first full-time job in 6-and-a-half-years (more on that later), I booked myself into psychotherapy for the first time.
There was an initial assessment with one therapist, who then assigned you to the appropriate practitioner long-term.
That initial conversation was incredible.
I laid out my situation a little bit, and she told me that, even though she’s not supposed to give advice in an assessment session, she just couldn’t help herself.
I was surprised at her non-medical language when she said something to the effect that I had worn the boundary between myself and the realm of Spirit very thin. Far more useful than any talking therapy would just be spending a few hours in a garden every day, getting back in touch with physical reality, becoming grounded in my body — which, for the moment, we must concede I happen to inhabit.
She said it sometimes takes a decade or more to consolidate and integrate that level of pushing the envelope of consciousness — so I should be patient.
She also said she heard a lot of internalized patriarchy in my beating myself up about my failure to be decisive, competent, “sorted out”, etc.
Then I opened up a bit about not knowing concretely what to prioritize in the coming weeks… I told her (very briefly) about the novel I had started… about the PhD project I was considering… the different religious orders I was considering abandoning all worldly connections in order to join… and she said:
Well, it sounds to me like you have already chosen.
…what? I have? That’s certainly news to me! ….tell me, please! What have I chosen?!!!!
A very complicated path.
I could tell you to, I don’t know… become a baker. But it doesn’t look like you’d accept that.
[a slow shake of the head; a far-off gaze]
What a way to be a human.
She finished with “I’d take you on as a client myself, but…” and then looked away and made a little grimace. I was somewhat heartbroken, but didn’t say anything, because my kneejerk, conditioned reaction to finding a woman intensely appealing in any way whatsoever is that such a feeling is deeply inappropriate.
The therapist she did end up assigning me to was quite interesting.
She is a very kind, fun lady. From the very little I know about her, she seems like a serious human being, worthy of respect.
The first few weeks was mostly just me babbling for the entire hour in the attempt to articulate (and/or contorting my body in the attempt to demonstrate) just how much agony I was in and how difficult it was to navigate the world through the constant barrage of suicidal thoughts.
And that’s one advantage of therapy: it is good for organizing your time and experience. This way, you know you can let this out to another human being at a specific place and day, which means you don’t have to burden anyone else in your life with your struggles. That keeps things tidy, and helps with the guilt of making yourself a nuisance.
But it’s only after I stabilized somewhat that things really started to develop.
I told her how connected I had felt to that initial assessment therapist. She had seen right through me within minutes; whereas I had exposed myself much more comprehensively to the second therapist for many hours without her giving me any clear or helpful feedback. So, long story short, I was a bit disappointed to have ended up with her.
Confronting someone directly like that — being open with them about how I honestly feel about someone, in a way that I know could hurt them, was extremely helpful.
That was literally the last thing I wanted to tell her. Being open about every other dark bit of my mind was very easy for me; this was the only challenging issue.
And this seems to me to be psychotherapy’s unique benefit, and something you just can’t get with meditation and self-contemplation.
My therapist knows nothing, basically. She hasn’t read any of the major philosophers, seems to have no experience about anything outside humdrum daily forms of consciousness, and (obviously) has no practical advice about getting published or networking or anything. She has nothing at all to offer for any of the major difficulties in my life. (e.g. is Nirvana attainable? Does it require taking refuge in the Three Jewels? Is it the same as knowledge of Brahman? Where does the Dao fit into it? What do you do when you feel like the left side of your body extends a few feet further outside your body than your right, leading you to feel unbalanced and dizzy as you walk around — do you try to move that energy back into your central column, or allow it to dissipate out to the air outside? Who the fuck can tell me what to do to be a philosopher and/or writer and/or religious person in this society — how to navigate the relevant institutions, or help me live outside them?)
So… just like pretty much everyone else I know… she can’t really help me in any meaningful way.
And so, talking to her makes me slightly frustrated.
I’m paying you over 15% of my monthly income. And not only are you unable to help me with my problems… you’re giving me new ones! You’re an extra cause of stress; yet another relationship to figure out how to navigate.
And so… I get to practice navigating a relationship.
I get to experiment with how to skilfully manage my frustration, my disappointment, and my crippling fear of wounding someone. With no consequences; there’s nothing to be gained or lost in the relationship.
And that’s pretty unique, and very helpful indeed.
In a bid to get back into the academic bubble, I successfully navigated the black-out panic attack to reach out to an emeritus professor called Nick Bunnin. He piqued my interest because he had almost no publications of his own — just a lot of collaborations and edited volumes — and was the only person to be listed on both the Philosophy and Chinese Studies faculty.
He was extremely kind and helpful; I may well worm my way back into the university fold — if nothing else, doing a Masters Degree in Chinese Philosophy in China, once the pandemic settles down.
I ended up interviewing him with the idea of uploading it to the YouTube channel I started.
I asked him about the greatest standard of personal success he had ever come across. In the sense that there’s so many ideas of what one can do with one’s existence… know God, find the truth, become a Buddha, complete a grand intellectual project, etc. etc.
Well, what person, that he’s aware of, got the closest to succeeding in any of these different goals?
He said that there have been partial and provisional successes in many of them.
I think that the philosophers that are most interesting, I don’t know whether they succeed or… achieve a kind of sense of a romantic ruin. Like the great abbeys of Yorkshire, much prized by the Romantics. Or other architectural ruins of great beauty and importance.
Then he started talking about Kant and the self and the relation to noumenal objects and then his notion of the distinction between the transcendent and the transcendental as the condition of the possibility for something we all agree happens……. and then Wittgenstein and Aristotle, and the question of degrees of truth, or even probability… then some Chinese philosophical concepts, and whether we discover or create truth/value/etc…. to the question of multiplicity of value (in, initially, 3-value logic, and then n-value logic)…
……before concluding with:
So, all these questions seem to me to be… I know how to articulate a question but I’m not sure I even understand the questions I articulated. So, forming words and then trying to figure out what the hell I mean, or what I might mean.
At which point my laughter turned into a coughing fit.
I thought I might as well take another punt, and asked him what the prospects of becoming a sage were.
One test of a sage — unlike a prophet who proclaims his prophecy, the status of being a prophet — a sage who says he’s a sage is not a sage. Or who believes he’s a sage is not a sage. So it’s an accolade from outside, rather than inside.
[Then he talked about whether sages agree with each other, and one neo-Confucian’s complaint about the Confucian tradition losing out on half of the ancient formula of sageliness on the inside and kingliness on the outside, and mentioned Xunzi’s distinction of kind between the ancient sages and modern sages…… but basically he said:]
The question seems to me to be open.
Anyway, you’re touching on so many things I have so many doubts about in my own mind.
My friend Ben was also very helpful. He taught me Tai Chi, and kept me company, and gave me one bit of particularly good advice.
On reading my initial draft of a letter reaching out to Nick Bunnin, he told me to take out all the self-deprecation.
He said that my mistake was clinging to my “authentic self”.
Yes, I’ve done a lot of good work opening my heart and being in touch with my emotions… but my “genuine self” too is ultimately illusory. Just because it’s a bit more honest (and perhaps tasteful) than the obviously fake selves people construct, I have fallen into the delusion of clinging to my authenticity and vulnerability.
And so, constructing a sort of “Rhodes Scholar”, dick-swinging persona will be healthy for me. It’ll be a bit of poison to get me to wake up from my obsession with “keeping it real”, which will ultimately impede my search for the Real.
…that’s going extremely slowly. But there is a lot of wisdom there, and I’ll try to chip away at this over the years.
There were truly beautiful moments going for walks with my friend Struan… and climbing Snowden with my friend Stephanos, who gave me the best Heideggerian pep talk I’ve ever received… and hanging out with Row and Elvis… and… and… to be honest, there have been so many beautiful moments.
Chief among them, a week-long trek through the Scottish Highlands in October…
But……. we’d best stick to the story here.
Which is how I crawled out of the deep depressive hell-hole in May.
The key turning point was truly story-book stuff.
At the peak of my depression, my dear friend and hiking buddy Nicholas Parkin took me out into the Welsh mountains for three days.
The stones and grass sucked out the toxins from my mind — each day, the suicidal urges receded earlier and earlier in the afternoon.
On the drive back, my mind turned back to the future. The next day, I would wake up in my room in exactly the same situation I was in before. The terror of losing my mind again started to well up.
I noticed I was panicking, closed my eyes, and took deep breaths. All the objects of consciousness fell away. I was back in blackness — quiet, still.
And at that exact moment — as Nick pulled the car into a gas station — an image surfaced from the hidden depths of my mind.
The hulking, ungainly, be-tweeded figure of a man I had studied Talmud with a decade ago, and bumped into in the streets of Oxford occasionally since then.
What was his name again…? Charles… something….? Wasn’t he some sort of wri…ter? Maybe I could get in touch with him for some advice.
When I got back home, I put a few things together and came to the realization that this image belonged to a certain Charles Foster.
Fellow at Green Templeton College; Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford Law Faculty; Senior Research Associate at the Uehiro Institute for Practical Ethics at the Philosophy Faculty; Research Associate at the Ethox Centre and the Helex Centre at the Medical Faculty.
Leading Barrister, with cases in the House of Lords, UK Supreme Court, and European Court of Human Rights.
Judge at the Crown Court and the County Court, authorised to try serious sexual cases.
…New York Times-bestselling author of Being a Beast.
…my little brother and I had, as it happens, slept on his kitchen floor one night several years back. He and his family were away and had left their keys with common friends. Those same common friends gave me his email address, and I managed to snatch 45 minutes with him before he absconded to the Peloponnese for the summer.
My friend Struan had pleaded with me to “be realistic”… this time… to be professional… to learn how to act on a first date… but the moment I sat in front of Charles, in his conservatory by the kitchen… all that went out the window.
I laid everything out to him plainly.
Since we last spoke, I worked at Google for a bit, and quit in distaste to write a novel.
And then I quit that to…
…the 19th Century Saint Ramakrishna said:
He is born in vain, who having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realise God in this very life.
And so, while I still had the chance… I did it. For four years, I set as my only goal to know God. Unironically.
And now I’m at a loose end. I’ve thrown away the chance of an academic career, of a policy career… and all I have to show for it is two manuscripts — one novel and one book on Spinoza — and if I don’t find a job I’ll be out on my ass in a month.
And I just… I just…
As I said all that, his gaze grew more and more concentrated — more focused in its intensity.
When I petered off, back towards the self-flagellation, he said:
I think it ridiculous that you’re doubting yourself like this.
What you’ve done is not only admirable — it is something I am deeply envious of. I never had the courage to do the same.
You have to accept, David, that you are part of the élite. You should look upon the rat race with disdain.
When you say “I”, David… it actually means something.
In your refusal to play ‘the game’, you’ve bought a place at the table of The Great Game.
The one for Infinite Stakes.
And I have every assurance that you’ll win.
So, now. What I’ll do is I’ll put you in touch with my agent. I’ll keep an eye out for any jobs — there’s always something or other coming up. And we’ll make this an ongoing conversation.
At this point, I started crying. I said that, if I ever tried to explain to someone what I was doing, I’m scared they’d think it Messianic.
You are that rarest of things — an actual human.
Just being a human these days is enough to raise accusations of Messianism.
My tears fell faster, and I said that… more than any of the things he offered… which were more than I could ever have imagined him doing……. I just needed a friend.
(An older friend… who knew something of the territory I was exploring… who could give some guidance in this unmarked plain.)
And he said:
I can be that friend, David.
Things slowly started to get better after that.
Here is an email I sent him a couple of weeks later.
This morning, upon returning from the gym (which, after so much meditation and qigong, has become a rather radical psycho-physical experience), I found myself in a frame of mind just complex enough that I could not merely dismiss it as anxiety, and which I could only accommodate by lying down.
I presently found myself back in that tundra-like plane of light and greyscale shadow which underlies each moment.
I didn’t sink entirely into it, however. My body was still there, though in improbable arrangements; physical sensations were present where no flesh could have been. Various people I had encountered over the previous days and years flitted in and out of existence, leaving me utterly ignorant of where and when and who it was.
An urgency surfaced from the depths, and I overheard myself saying, for the umpteenth time, that I cannot keep doing this. That I have to be pro-active, get organized, stick to schedule, and tackle the hair-wrenchingly confusing morass of admin which comes with job applications.
I compromised by reaching over for your book, where I read the section on page 71 about the edge space between waking and sleeping…..
….through the section about not truly desiring freedom, but rather a small menu of congenial and not-overly-effectual choices — that living with infinite possibilities and bearing bravely the responsibility for choosing between them is what it is to be human…
…and skidding to a halt when I reached the section about how hard and dangerous it is (having had a taste of real “real life”) to go back to the post-Palaeolithic charades (p. 78).
Your book [Being a Human] is so uncannily evocative and existentially resonant that complimenting its consistently striking eloquence of phrase — and the way its narrative and intellectual threads are spun together with the seemingly casual deftness of touch of a master weaver — feels trite. It’s as if the gap between our lived experiences has been rubbed out in precisely those places I feared I’d never be able to share with others. I doubt I’ll have much to say upon finishing it beyond making prolonged eye contact and giving you a slow nod.
I subsequently managed to rouse myself and complete two administrative tasks; I have in mind to do one more. Past that, my future is a patch of fog in a house of mirrors.
I am trying to be brave.Email to Charles Foster – June 15, 2021
The next day, I went for a walk and passed by a choir singing in the lawn in front of St. Alban’s Church on Charles Street.
I sat and listened and knew preternatural peace, and the fibers of my being were stirred by a breeze from the Other Side.
The following morning, on once again returning from the gym, I sat down on a chair in my living room and heard a voice which said:
If you want your suffering to come to an end, all you need do is come back to Me.
I saw myself rising from a cot in a stony cell, donning a cassock, and shuffling with head bowed towards the altar, where I knelt, looked upward, and dissolved into the light.
I opened my eyes to find myself squatting in a grove, tens of thousands of years ago. There were five other humans around me — three of them younger. Two of them might have been my children. I saw one of them playing around with sticks. I started to ponder about what might happen if this were to go on… if these children were to have children, and the tools they played with were to become ever more complex…
I saw something resembling what a prehistoric human would have made of a pirate ship, and then…
With a violent rush, I was thrust back into my body, in the “present”, in my living room, in the grip of the thought:
No. No. No. Nonononono. I cannot become a monk. All of this started because I wondered what would happen next, if this kept going.
If I now shut myself off in silence in a monastery and aim straight for the End, I will only find myself back in that grove, and I will have to live through all those generations once again, just to witness the continuation…
I meditated for an hour in a full trance-state before finally getting into the shower to wash off the sweat of the gym.
A few days later, I stepped out into my back garden — either soon after or just before reading the passage in Being a Human about Charles dissecting his mother.
When my own mother was four years old, her family moved from Cuba to Princeton, New Jersey so that my grandmother could go through cancer treatment.
A year after that, my grandmother died.
She was, by all accounts, the truly special one in that genetic line — mother of five, first female pharmacist in her region of Cuba, instantly beloved by everyone she touched, etc. etc.
It occurred to me that I had never actually tried to communicate with her, directly. I had thought about her, but as you see, I interpreted those mental events as occurring at one remove.
Well, I just took that “about” out of the equation, and addressed her straight.
Dear Grandmother. I’m so sorry I’ve never actually attended to you before…
…and a figure formed itself out of the blank, expansive field of pure light which underlies each moment.
(Not the tenebrous tundra I described last time, but the white light which, miraculously, does not burn you when you approach it clean).
((Incidentally, I happen to have happened upon Suhrawardi recently — the great [and Murdered] Master of Illumination.
His system is neat.))
And the figure radiated warmth out at me — and love and acceptance and everything you might imagine a grandmother might give.
The day after that, I stepped out into my back garden and sat at the bench at the end, beneath the bathroom window.
The space before me began to ripple like a pot coming to a boil.
The subject-object distinction fell away immediately.
Faced with this phenomenon, the idea of “me” as a perceiver located in this body, and the sight of the garden as something “outside” of me, completely ceased to be relevant.
The only way to see it was that “I” was the field of awareness, and the garden before me was a phenomenon in my mind.
At that point, I turned all my attention to the space rippling in front of me… and in the next moment, it became perfectly obvious what it was.
It was an entire universe.
Let’s start with the standard picture: There is this body-mind on this planet in this galaxy in this pocket of space-time-consciousness which is this “universe”.
This body-mind tries to construct an idea of the universe it is occurring in… which is what I perceive as this universe.
So, “this universe” is, from my perspective, a certain idea or mental construct, occurring in my mind.
That is to say, if I start to think “the universe”, a coalition of images and ideas and equations all bubble up — that is “this universe”, or “my idea of this universe”.
What I was witnessing was something else.
It was not “the thing that happens in my head when I think about the universe”.
And it was not just the “Other World” — the one Augustine caught sight of in the garden in Milan — the one you see reflected in the sheen of gold through the censer smoke in Orthodox services.
It was specifically my world.
I saw that this mind — this consciousness — is a womb incubating another world.
A universe which can only come into existence through the precise sequence of phenomena which is my life.
Everything I experience adds up to form a certain aesthetic — a certain sense of what is valuable and worthwhile. And that unique aesthetic serves as the structuring impetus for a full, complete, and (as it happens) boundless world, peopled by countless sentient creatures.
All my mental events are like a thin film encasing this pocket universe — and what I was seeing was the film grow even thinner for a moment, revealing the dormant cosmos inside it. It was like parents feeling a baby kicking at its mother’s belly — a presentiment of birth.
All of this was visible by direct observation.
I could see into that pocket world, in almost exactly the same way that you can see images in the pellucid coating of a soap bubble.
And it became perfectly clear that all I had to do was to continue to live, to collect impressions, to refine my wordless sense of beauty and unreferent, independent truth.
And then… I had to die.
This was not some premonition. Time obviously starts to fall away as a relevant category here — so it’s not as if I envisioned a future point in which I must make the ultimate sacrifice or whatnot. It was an exceedingly simple observation from the nature of the thing I was witnessing.
What “I” am is a series of limits on the field of my awareness. A certain sense of boundedness(es) in space [body, room, city, other people] — and a certain narrative about the events I witness.
So long as these boundaries are in operation, the world I was seeing bubbling, gestating inside me cannot expand to take over the field of awareness.
I hope I am giving some sense of how comprehensively self-evident this all was.
It’s just like saying: so long as the water is frozen into an ice sculpture (a castle, say, with a courtyard and a dancing prince and pauper), then it cannot melt and flow down and into a bog and become fecund.
My life and that personal universe I witnessed are both made of exactly the same stuff. So long as it is used to give shape to the former, it cannot fully give form to the latter. Because the latter is of the nature to expand infinitely, whereas the former is bounded. The former is boundedness — here, now, this, that, me, you.
Only when those boundaries which constitute my life fade away can the universe I saw rippling beneath the surface of my mind expand outwards into its full effulgence.
Indeed, with those things gone, there could be nothing to ever hold it back.
I had always treated Mormons with a certain unreflective disregard, but I now saw very well what Joseph Smith meant with his cosmology of “eternal progression” — that, living the holy life, we will become as gods, and be given our own planet or star or heavenly kingdom or whatnot.
That ended up being another major turning point.
For one thing, the psychic disturbances started to settle down after that.
(The only episodes comparable to the one related above were much more “controlled”.
I’d feel something bubbling up, go to a grove, squat, stick my hand in the mud, stare at a tree and say: “OK. We’re safe. You’re good. Limiters off. Do whatever you wanna do.”
And then the air around me would fold in on itself into various shifting presences,
with much the same flavour as the kami [“spirits”] of Shintoism.
…and …well… I guess there were the times I flopped onto my bed, desperately declared my love for my phenomenological field until it dropped away and I fell totally into the Presence beyond it.
And, well… for most of the winter holidays, I would wake up, get out of bed, go for a walk… and feel so ecstatic that I had to go lie down and just… be happy for a few hours… it was so overwhelming that it took all my mental resources just to contain it.
…and then yesterday, I spent an hour staring at a tree… and eventually told it about the Observer effect, and proudly declared that if anyone came round and asked me what I was doing with my day, I could tell them I was propping up this tree in existence… and then the tree said “Dude, what are you talking about? You know that person asking you to justify your existence is just in your head, right?” and I said “that’s mighty big talk for a tree…” and the conversation kind of petered out from there… and even though the silence was kind of awkward now, I still kept giggling a lot….
…….so, yes. As I said — the psychic disturbances did properly start to settle down after that.)
And along with that, some of the urgency and desperation I was feeling began to dissipate.
I no longer felt so fully obligated to get my act together and “succeed”.
I did not have to find an editor and a publisher and readers in this world for my first novel, all so that I could scavenge the pennies necessary to buy the chance to sit down and write my second.
I really could just take in this world for as long as this body-mind holds up, and allow the act of creation to take place in a wholly different direction.
And with that realization came peace.
I landed a job at a local village primary school, and started work.
I fell in love with each and every one of the children — and every co-worker, and every fractional angle of the view over Otmoor Nature Reserve, and the rest of Northern Oxfordshire you can see from Beckley Hill.
It is a treasured life experience already — one too momentous to write about offhand.
Over the next few months, I found I could wake up, cycle to school, give my attention to the children, cycle back, stretch my limbs and torso, meditate, eat dinner, lie still, and see my friends on the weekend. I could do all this and maintain my store of peace… but no more. I could not engage in serious reading… I could not engage in serious writing… and, most of all, I could not strategize and effectuate self-promotion.
I learned exactly how much effort I could exert on any given day without building up a level of stress which would start to fray the fabric of my mind.
I have now rediscovered — essentially from square one — how to walk and talk and breathe again. I have reconstructed the baseline structure of a day.
In other news, I went through all the girls I find attractive in my social circles in Oxford, asked them out, and got rejected by all 9 of them.
I started a podcast with a couple of friends, which featured a truly inspiring and encouraging conversation with the spiritual teacher Rupert Spira.
It was almost as good as the conversation with Charles Foster.
There was a really helpful bit about the ethics of a contemplative life (Yes, living a quiet, secluded, aesthetically-orientated life is fine, because there are not separate minds – there is just one Mind, and what happens in one bit of it affects what happens in everything else), about a really, really helpful bit about not committing to a particular religion (“From what little I know of you, you seem like a sincere and earnest truth-lover…”).
I asked him about the worry, the frustration, the “feeling like a schmuck” of trying to “get yourself out there” as an artist or spiritual writer.
The frustration… all the frustration — it… that comes from the ego… from the sense of [a separate self]. No, no — stay with your love of truth, and allow that to express itself naturally, through the particular vehicle of your body-mind. It’s not for you to dictate how and where this goes in the world, how many people see you. That’s…. the ego is creeping back in.
What about the worry? Not the frustration, but the worry. The sense of urgency.
…make the worry your investigation.
Because the worry… the sense of inadequacy… the feeling that you’re not achieving… all of these are the ego in your self. As long as those are still operating in you, then that is what you’re going to be sharing, out in the world.
So, take the frustration, the worry, the anxiety, the sense of failure. Make this your contemplation. Ask yourself: “But who is the one who feels frustrated? Is it me — the presence of awareness? Is awareness ever frustrated?
No! Awareness is like the space of this room! It doesn’t mind what takes place in this room.
So you have to establish yourself as that, and then your body-mind will just naturally express that.
So if there’s anxiety, lack of confidence, frustration… these are the residues of the ego in you. Instead of trying to fulfil them… instead of trying harder to get your videos out there even more — no. Do the opposite. Turn around — investigate, ask yourself who is the one who feels frustrated? Who is the one who feels anxious who is the one who feels a failure? Use these emotions to deepen your investigation into the true nature of your self and to establish yourself there. And then more and more your actions will naturally flow from that, and you’ll find yourself being effortlessly effective in the world.
There will be some chance meeting that you didn’t imagine, you didn’t design it, you didn’t even want it… you’ll just get an invitation to do something. And it will seem to come out of nowhere. But it won’t. The universe will be responding to this impersonal stance in your self. Why? Because what you essentially are and what the universe essentially is are the same. So the changes that we go through internally — they elicit a response. They’re synchronistic responses of the universe. And the universe will respond. Because you are then — I’m caricaturing the universe now — the universe will so-to-speak ‘recognize’ that you are, to a degree, free of the ego, and therefore the work you do in the world will be effective.
To which I responded, from the bottom of my heart, looking straight into his eyes…
God bless you.
(…if I may.)
The other participants broke out into a merry outpouring of laughter.
Rupert himself looked straight down at his hands.
What a beautiful person.
I got in touch with Tony Morris of Mud Pie Books; he’ll be publishing a little book of mine on Buddhism and Depression (forthcoming, 2023), and I’ll soon be writing a monthly column for their website called “Unearthed Gems”, showcasing rare and ground-breaking books on Buddhism.
And, crucially… my meditation practice has been going better than it has ever gone. Involuntary and overwhelming altered states of consciousness have largely been consolidated so as to be accessed in the appropriate context (of isolated motionlessness).
A major turning point — a true breakthrough experience — came when listening to a dhamma talk by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
I’ll admit that I had gotten a little bit stuck; I could, without much difficulty, access a completely blank field of awareness, stretching boundlessly in every direction… and/or abide in the purity of “I am”….. but there would still be quite of bit of confusion and fear and dissatisfaction when I left those places and returned to “normal life”.
But something came undone — a barrier became unblocked — when I heard Thanissaro say:
So when you see how all of this [the sensory fields; the body; intentions; the mind itself, and its thoughts] is fabricated, you begin to wonder how you can find happiness with fabricated things like this.
The mind begins to get more and more inclined to want to find stillness, so it turns more and more to concentration.
At first, the concentration seems very peaceful compared to everything else, to the point where you would think it may be unfabricated.
It’s just there, especially as you tune into deeper and deeper levels of concentration with an unbounded sense of space, a sense of knowing.
Everything seems to come out of the knowing and go into the knowing. And the knowing is not disturbed. It’s the same with the space.
A lot of people get deluded right here.
They think they’ve reached the “ground of being.”
It’s so still and so pervasive.
But it is fabricated.
Scientists have done tests and have discovered when certain areas of the brain are activated, there’s a great sense of Oneness. They call it the “God spot,” as if they had answered the question, “This is why people have religions: It’s because of the God spot.”
Now, if the Buddha had you end up with just that sense of Oneness, maybe they’d be right.
But he keeps saying no, there’s more.
This, too, is fabricated.
As you experience it from within, you begin to realize that you put it together.
You recognize it; you label it; there’s an effort that goes into maintaining it.
That effort may be very subtle, but it’s there.
You can see that even this is fabricated. You can see what you’ve done to keep it going.
Then there comes a point that’s hard to describe.
You realize you can’t stay there if you want to get beyond the stress of that particular state, and you can’t go someplace else because everything else you’re going to go to will also be fabricated.
between the going and the staying…
there’s an opening.
There’s something that’s totally unfabricated, totally unconditioned, unintended, an area where scientists can’t go.
Everything they know is all conditioned, but this is not.
And that’s where you find the solution to the problem, to the questions of, “Why are we suffering and how can we stop?”
Well, this is how you stop.
And once that problem is answered, there are no other questions that eat away at the mind.Thanissaro Bhikku
You might have questions about the world outside, but now those questions don’t have teeth.
They don’t eat away at the heart the same way the question of suffering eats away at the heart.
With nothing eating the heart, it can be whole: something that’s truly deserving of being our goal.
When he said “there’s an opening”… I noticed something, the scent of which I’ve been tracking with inexhaustible delight ever since.
It’s almost as if I could physically feel Nirvana, just… there… peeking around the corner… on the boundary of the hairline crack at the outline of my mind.
There was also a meaningful recent short exchange with my true friend, Agnibho Gangopadhyay. I asked how he was keeping… and if he was managing to extract any enjoyment from this existence.
there is no enjoyment, leon
i wanted to be a footloose , experimenting with life, taking risks with vocations….
what i am now is a hopelessly indebted intermittent salary earner with the entire responsibilty of three persons on me
and this will go on till i die
And that also jogged an insight in me.
I do want to make money to buy my friends out of debt and poverty, and then donate the rest to the world’s poor. I do want to influence global politics for the better. I do want to continue developing intellectually, and discuss philosophy with young people — presumably, within a university context.
But I only want the results. I want absolutely none of the things you have to do to get there. I, once again, lack any handle on the middle cogs.
What I actually want is to be footloose. To be experimental with life. To take risks with vocations.
So I think I’ll keep trying that for a while and see how it goes.
So… those were a few highlights from 2021.
And here are my intentions for 2022.
I will see out this year at the primary school.
Fingers crossed, I’ll be able to complete my spiritual autobiography of the years 2017-2020 over the Spring.
Covid permitting, I will stay in Oxford over the Summer and tutor at the summer schools for some cash.
Then, in the Autumn… I will move back in with my parents in Madrid, sleeping on a futon in a corner of their 2-room flat.
Over the course of the next year, I will wake up, meditate, walk to the National Library, and write.
Then I will go for a walk in the King’s Retreat park, do some exercise, meditate, and do some reading in the evening. I am flirting with the idea of even playing some video games again.
I will release a little chat on YouTube every week, taking a quote from some ancient sage and riffing on it.
I also have a list of philosophers and academics I could interview via Zoom.
I will also try, then, to do things ‘properly’. I will devote a day a week to trying to “build up a portfolio” — get things published in prominent places, get in touch with other writers, spam agents, or whatever the fuck one is supposed to do to be a writer these days.
Freed from the need to pay rent, I will also do some low-cost traveling – going to stay with old friends here and there.
And, above all… I will dedicate myself to my second novel: Birth of a Sage.
One thought on “The Cosmos Within – 2021 in Review”
Your words resonate so many truths David. O sent this to me this morning having shared with her that I am feeling extremely physically low of energy due to meeting up with Covid 5 days ago. As I have been reading and pausing, seeing your lines flow around my head and into my self I let out a few Ahahs. A road less traveled by others is the one that leads you on. Well done.
I look forward to hearing more. All the very best and big hugs to keep you going. Elizabeth