I’ve had some poems published recently, including three in Urthona: Buddhism & the Arts. It’s a great magazine if you’re into Buddhism, meditation, and literature. Here’s ‘Waiting for Al-Khidr’ from the magazine. Also in the issue are ‘The Pearl’ and ‘How I Became a Prophet’. It’s the current issue so consider subscribing if you’re interested to read them.
‘The Cord’ appeared in Live Canon‘s New Poems for Christmas anthology.
In the co-ordinator’s office of the meditation centre where I’m volunteering, there’s a piece of wood engraved with the following:
A beautiful day. It will not come again.
As a call to appreciation, it seemed more urgent than carpe diem. This came home to me while looking out of the window of a bathroom on the upper floor, having ushered a ladybird from the sill behind the toilet to the ledge outside. I stopped to look at the rain lashing the chimney pots and garden, puddling on the flat sections of roof below. That set of circumstances: the grounds, the rain, me, the people in my life right now, will never line up again in quite the same way.
I took the photo above on another beautiful day, not long ago. The door was on a side street, metres from the shops and harbour of a Cornish fishing town. Afterwards, I had it in mind to start a photography project with impermanence as a theme, but gradually let go of the scheme and decided once again to just get along with life and see what happens. A few Big Ideas have come since, and it’s interesting to see how I grab onto them in response to a need for security, or recognition, for example. Sooner or later the Big Idea passes but hopefully a few, small, good ones will have taken care of themselves.
This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.
The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.
Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.
Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.
Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.
Interesting that in dreams we seem to have a self – whether that be a butterfly or a WWII soldier – though we have no physical body, and the world around us is a tottering, malleable palace. It’s as though the mental machinery that constructs our everyday perception of self and other can at last be seen making shapes out of the mist.
Josh Korda’s podcast has been one of my favourite things to listen to over the past year. Josh is a meditation teacher at Dharmapunx in Brooklyn. A teacher in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, it’s actually Josh’s keen passion for psychology that makes his talks so engaging, as well as his straight-talking humour.
Josh will often start with a psychological concept, frequently attachment theory and theories of childhood development, to shed light on common problems such as addiction, envy, and shame. He also talks about aspirational topics like ‘how to live a purposeful life’, creativity, contentment, and self-esteem. Much of the time, though not always, there’s a confluence between these ideas and Buddhist thought and Josh usually offers beneficial strategies, tools and techniques.
There’s a real honesty and openness to the talks. One anecdote recounts how after recognising his alcoholism and resolving to go sober, his job as an advertising executive required him to attend a whisky distiller’s party. He describes a kind of surreal whisky fountain at one end of the room. Someone dressed as a grouse tried to hand him a free quart. While he was drinking no one ever tried to give him a free bottle of whisky, he says. He decided that, even if it puts his job at jeopardy, he had to leave the party immediately or risk everything. He makes light of heavy themes with a knack for pointing out the absurd.
Josh eventually left the advertising party altogether, having risen to the rank of Art Director because he’d grown to loathe it. Over a period of seven years, he moved from a salaried job, to freelance, to doing what he’s passionate about: teaching at Dharmapunx, where these talks are recorded, and taking one-on-one counselling work.
The audio quality suggests the talks are recorded on someone’s phone – not slick by any means but with lo-fi charm. Don’t let that put you off, you’d be missing out.
As far as I know, none of history’s greatest philosopher-poets had their best insights while holding a soiled cat litter tray. But there I was, in the garden after midnight, seeking truth and a clean gravel-filled receptacle for Mr. Biggington. The valley was cool and quiet. I looked up from the decking to see a bright canopy of stars. I gazed upward in hope of a straggling Perseid meteor. None came.
As insights go it was more a way of looking. Consider that concepts we use to categorise what we see lead us to take those things for granted. So when I see a thousand pinpoints of white-blue light that are billions of years old, I think “stars” and continue cleaning out the litter tray. In fact, the constellations our ancestors navigated by for millenia are slowly changing shape. They have no blueprint. No necessary form or intrinsic reason to exist. Perhaps this whole arrangement is fleeting, vertiginous chance and should be honoured with our closest attention. Maybe that’s what poetry does for us, I thought, as I finished cleaning up cat shit.
Three of my poems will appear in the winter issue of Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts. They are ‘Waiting for Al-Khidr’, ‘The Pearl’, and ‘How I Became a Prophet’.
Here’s an exploration of the Buddhist view of anatta, commonly translated as ‘no self’ or ‘not self’. Although I’m not an authority on this, I’ve been thinking about what anatta might mean in comparison to our normal, conditioned view. Let’s suppose that View A is commonly held:
View A: there is a conscious self, an “I”, who possesses a body and senses through which it perceives the world.
Now suppose View B is the Buddhist view:
View B: there are sensations, memories, concepts, feelings which comprise consciousness in each moment.
A metaphor commonly used for View A is that of a captain piloting a ship. This is the way our language works. We talk of “my” body but it’s not always clear who’s in possession of that body if not the body itself.
In the latter view, the “I” that arises is not permanent. It depends moment by moment upon experiences. These may include physical sensations but also mental events, such as memories and conceptual thought. This “I”, or what psychologists might call the ego, is continually arising and passing as phenomena change. If we look closely, we may fail to find a pre-existing “I” — but this is not to say that there is no reality to our subjective experience. In fact, the opposite conclusion may be drawn: that subjective experience arises directly from phenomena.
In truth, most of us probably hold both views at different times and View B is by no means exclusive to Buddhist philosophy. The question we are invited to ask of View A is, where is this “I” that features so prominently in our worldview? Is it anything more than a thought?