If you want to quieten your mind do this: go to the river and stare at the surface, do not allow your eyes to move at all. It is best when it is an entirely monochrome scene in your field of vision, as it is for me now if I position my head correctly. When the grass of the far bank is obscured by the top of the windows, I can rest my eyes on the water. At some point the motion just stops, and the mind also stops, and I am left with the awareness of empty standing waves, which is a good picture of what thoughts are really like in the mind.
The mind is what the brain does. The brain is not what the mind is. When I once told a man that there are many ways to think without words, he almost threw a fit. It was like describing feeling shame to a narcissist: ‘It cannot exist!’
Ah, but… Had he never met a choreographer, a painter, a chef, a singer, a T’ai Chi person, a lover? They, we, all think perfectly well with other tools than words: movement, colour, sensation, sound. Jokes can be told with not one word spoken. Not everything has a word-label, and even if it did, the label has been applied after the fact. You cannot taste my damson jam by licking the label.
In Britain, it is better to sit wearing a woollen cape, preferably with a hood. Our ancestors upon these isles prayed or meditated or worshipped thus. This is a draughty damp land, this Archipelago of Brigid, and a cape covers all tender places and prevents the pernicious cold damp wind from entering and causing untold ailments. Sit on a cushion or two, I prefer a zafu on a small flat cushion, it’s just the right height for kneeling or sitting, which I like to alternate. Then I bow until my forehead touches the ground. What am I bowing to? The Tao, perhaps, but really, I am just joining my skin with the surface of the earth, the planet where I am at home, saying, ‘I am here, I am listening.’
Bowing is the antidote to hubris, from which I suffer like a postnasal drip. Constant wet dripping hubris, down my throat, it changes my voice, horribly. My true voice is only heard in surprise, in unknowing, or when knocking at the door too soon, and through grace, having it opened. I have sung from that place once or twice in my life. It took a final hour of dismantling to get there, after a decade of patiently unbricking the door, and a bit of full-scale demolition from my teacher.
The original Taoists got all their knowledge not from books, (as it was before books), and not from secret teachings, (as there were no teachers). They paid minute, close attention to nature, and saw things from the perspective of not-self and looked at the world through the antennae of a butterfly, or famously, from the happiness of two fishes in the shadows under a bridge. They did not make themselves too useful, and so did not get cut down, they were bent and gnarled like the useless oak tree, and thus got to live long. Work was hidden, everything could be accomplished whilst seemingly doing something else for a living. Duties were fulfilled, those who reneged on this were scorned in books for centuries – read Liu I Ming: ‘Those who leave their families and responsibilities to “follow the Way” deserve nothing but contempt’.
We show others what we most need to be shown. This is not just a way to do things differently, this is how to unravel the great binding and free one’s natural energy. This is how we learn to trust our innate wisdom. And if you ask earth to let you meet a good teacher one day, then I trust that soon enough, when you are ready, one will walk into your life, and you will know them. They might not be a human. Pray for that and wait. This works, you know. How I was in a spruce grove in Romania was only and exactly all this, no more, no less. Empty, humble, practicing, mindless, rested, vibrating, full of awe and wonder, with simple materials close at hand, prepared.
True knowledge comes from the land not words, but words can help make a bridge to the land if need be. You have to find a way that works in your own place and see the truth of nature in the wells and water there. Maybe it is closer than you think already and waiting for your request. Ah, wild readers, we have all been chosen for work. The earth needs us, and perhaps you think you’ve got nothing to give. It is hard, yes, but there is always help at hand and hints are left scattered all around like hazelnuts in the old leaves. Living things wish to persist. Are we on the side of the living? Dead things wish to compost and rot down, to become living things again. Are we willing to transform?
Now as I write, a heron stands fishing on the bank, still, poised, natural, following its instinct, relaxed, aware, ready to strike. There is not one thing missing from this instruction.
If we would do only one thing, with utmost sincerity, the entire Milky Way would be like a seam of chanterelles rippled in moss at our feet.
This is the first in an occasional series in addition to my usual Monday essays, comprising short interludes from my archives. This piece on meditation and method is from 2017 when I still lived in a small boat on the river Thames. It was revised and updated this evening, to say thanks to the many people who have subscribed to my newsletter this week. Greetings to you from the blustery south coast of England, on the largest of 6000 or so of Brigid’s Isles.
For more about the Isles of Brigid, read Julian Cope’s ‘The Modern Antiquarian’.
Liu I Ming, (1737-?) ‘Awakening to the Tao’
Very warm greetings from the other side of the English Channel / La Manche.
Hi Caroline, came to your page following Paul Kingsnorth's recommendation. Thus this is the first piece of yours I have read and I realy enjoyed it. Your description of the river reminds me of Herman Hesse's Siddartha and how he finally found enlightenment watching and listening to a river and I am sure there is great truth in what you say. Will now look online to see your art and look forward to your further posts.
PS Love the word 'Hubriscene' - if that is yours then a tip of the hat to you!!