Full of emptiness
fecund absences, no-thing-ness, and use without possession
It gets harder to come back from the place of no words
Without access to sea edge and forest there are many thoughts I can’t have and many kinds of silence, too. Sensation, movement and perception roll along without words and take on the green tinge of leaf or the glint of grey flint. Last week the cove remade me in its image - tidal thoughts, harder, durable stone ideas, softer yet more tenacious seaweed feelings. Irascible mind chatter flies past, as persistently as the gulls diving for morsels. The calling pigeon of ordinary mind alights, perches, flaps dramatically overhead (in the head?) Then a sudden change of cadence - de derr derr de derr - momentarily stops, and the world with it.
Even my mundane thoughts and everyday actions are part of the calling into being of all things, so long as they follow the natural tides of life and do not seek to impose rigid sameness, like a program. I search myself for fixity again, fearing I will find the imprint of the Machine, but solid states cannot be found, thank goodness. The deep peace of mind which arises from a profound yield to life, to truly accepting my (and all things’) impermanence, cannot be fathomed.
Awaking from more dreams of bogs, marshes, then canals, running down the centre of streets which seem as though they should be crossable, but are not easily forded, I am reminded of the quaint road-streams of Broadway, Worcestershire. This ‘division by water’ transforms into words upon waking - corpus callosum. My great friend and teacher Mark Raudva and I then spend hours speaking of the genius insights of Iain McGilchrist, that the corpus callosum, indeed all neural pathways, either say no (inhibit) or do not say no (decline to inhibit) to every single electrical impulse of our grey matter and our wider nervous systems. Each creative moment since our conception is formed by ‘saying no’ or abstaining from ‘saying no’. To a pair of old Taoists, the irony is not lost. Non-doing is genuinely the basis of all doing, even at the synaptic level. In the brain there is no ‘saying yes’: that is many levels up in cognitive function, where we assign meaning and say to ourselves, ‘I made this choice’. But in reality, life functions through limits, and beauty does too.
Knowing there will be an end, I choose the beautiful route.
The Thought Fox
One winter by the lock gates, as I stepped up to cross the water, the invisible fox appeared.
‘Why are you taking everything away from me?’ I said.
‘It’s just practice for when you lose everything,’ he replied.
Like an idiot, I thought he meant my desire.
But he meant everything: home, land, friends, sanity, livelihood, health, youth, all familiar landmarks.
He walked off back into the clear air of not quite having existed.1
Rebel by not knowing
To say, ‘I am at one’ with something is to say we already know what we are joining with. What hubris, to think we know the person, mountain, painting, book or ocean in front of us! Why not allow the not-knowing? It is the left hemisphere’s greatest taboo, it will never say it does not know something, it would rather make up a story, any story, than say ‘I don’t know’, much like the new AIs of present infamy.2 The great beauty of our physiology and spirit is that we can instead chose to not say no to connection.3 This does not presuppose any certainty as to what we may be joining with. Connection is the already present state of all things. As my Grandmaster put it, we are ‘Not-Two’. For such vast numbers of humans, or any other creatures, to feel so alone is unnatural and historically unprecedented, and yet it is the main aim of the Machine to make us feel so. Isolation makes us more pliant to its infernal ministrations.
Connexion is the greatest rebellion.
The empty tomb
On Easter Sunday I woke up knowing that I am not allowed to have things, but I am allowed the use of things. A deep feeling of energy returning accompanied this knowing. When I let go of possession, I am in turn not possessed anymore, a demon lifts from my back and shoulders, I am freer in my movements internally and outwardly. It’s the apparent thing-ness of things that causes the problem. In truth, there are no things, only a constant arising and falling away, only the rate differs, between, say, a mayfly and a civilisation. How this presents itself to me is a rare but recurring feeling of things pressing or pushing through a membrane, as if from another dimension. The familiar ‘mug-ness’ of the mug in my hand is just the tip of the iceberg of so many elements: time, place, manufacturing, culture, use, class, materiality, trade, habit, molecules of silicon dioxide, energy use, and always, eventually, the sun, moon and stars, energy: the stuff of the galaxy. I know other people who occasionally feel this way about objects. When objects rest in this uncanny state, the grasping mind has nothing whatsoever to hold onto.4
When I say I can only have the use of things, not the possession of them, Shevek from Ursula K LeGuin’s masterpiece ‘The Dispossessed’ comes to mind. We encounter him as a toddler claiming a square of sunlight for himself in the nursery:
‘The knobby baby stood up. His face was a glare of sunlight and anger. His diapers were about to fall off. “Mine!” He said in a high, ringing voice. “Mine sun!”
“It is not yours,” the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it you cannot use it.” And she picked the knobby baby up with gentle hands and set him aside, out of the square of sunlight.’
Unlike Shevek, I am not being prevented from having things by a diligently egalitarian anarchist social structure, nor by God, nor by some inadvertent psychological self-sabotaging, I am just describing the course of events to date, and noticing the theme. It may be at some time that things go differently, but in the Taoist Classics it says, ‘Know the times, move with the times.’ Money, livelihoods, homes, status, my own work and ideas - all continually flow through my hands and will not be grasped. Yet, I always have what I truly need. Today had the tone of that one-eyed woman.
On Sunday I thought clearly and quietly about the many things I do not now have, and how I finally do not mind at all. This is nothing to do with the ‘In the future, you’ll own nothing, eat bugs and be happy,’ brigade. Instead it is much akin to the feeling two friends have described, on gladly entering the religious life. It is strange to even type these words ‘religious life’, and I sure don’t dress or act like a nun… But the prayer, practice and relinquishment that characterise more obvious paths are here in this Tao too, so maybe I should just accept it. Also, it is a way to authentically get to be at work in the ruins with my comrades. I can be physically down here at the cliff base, picking up rocks from the landslide and making them into pigment, and heading back with a handful of sea beet for supper greens.
But here is the turnaround: I do get the use of everything I can make fresh each day. What I choose to make is family love and care, my connection with and as nature, rest, art, friendship, writing, my peace of mind, a sense of wonder (and of humour, with luck and a fair wind). In the prayer I have said twice a day for the last 5 years there‘s a line ‘Help us make for each other our daily bread’. Well, these things are our daily bread, my insightful friend Liz Slade noticed, when I messaged her the above list, a few days ago.
Use without possession hovers above this week like an austere blessing. Inexplicably but certainly linked to the dividing waters dream of corpus callosum. I think what is being asked of me is to exercise discernment, to sometimes say no to following the silk thread impulses which can snarl rapidly into knots. And so I am writing my way through it with you this Friday evening. Usually, I write my posts up to a couple of weeks in advance, editing for several days, then recording only when things are settled. But on Monday I fly to the States for the first time in 23 years, and a prepared post sits in the queue for you next week in case the wifi gods of America are fickle. And so, here is this, off the cuff, from the heart and close to the ground.
Many thanks to reader Jane Launchbury for her comment on last week’s post, which prompted me to return to these thoughts on beneficial absences, emptiness, and the spaces between, which have been gathering all month (if non-being can be said to gather…) Half a lifetime of T'ai Chi, and 40 years of drawing from life, has meant I spent a large amount of time looking for what's not there, finding gaps in my pushing hands partner's awareness, or when drawing, studying the shapes of negative spaces, outlining them, and using them to give form to what is. Absence says as much about form as presence.
If I draw a curving line on a sheet of paper, marking the edge of the space where your leg ends, and then block-in the wall behind you right up to where your sweater begins, using the side of my charcoal. If I then mark out the parts of the chair that are still visible, not covered by your thighs, and with care draw the slender spaces between your fingers, the parts of the table top where your hands are not… magically your form appears. By paying the utmost attention to absences and by not getting caught up in appearances, a truer proportion can be attained than could ever be gained by staring doggedly at a so-called object.5 This is true elsewhere, not just in life-drawing. 6
When all I could see was the intricately memorialised detail of what I no longer possessed, I had somehow completely missed seeing the whole of the rest of creation.
This week’s good thing: ‘Each and Every One’ by Everything But the Girl. I have loved this song since 1984. Singer Tracey Thorn is also a wonderful writer. Do yourself a favour and listen to this, and sing along.
This is a true story from 2018. It appears the fox was correct.
There is a clue here: what can be coded in machines as ‘artificial intelligence’ is only a parody of left hemisphere electrical cascades, not the rich expansive responsiveness of true thought which comes from fleeting humans; living embodied beings suffused in hormonal biospheres.
Welcoming connection isn’t about denying anyone’s healthy boundaries. Nuance exists.
Indeed, it is the best way to check for the errors that creep into drawings when we only use strict measurement techniques. Standing for many hours drawing, using only the ‘dot and tickle’ or ‘Slade School’ technique, made famous by artists such as Euan Uglow, can sometimes lead to large errors by novices, if we do not return regularly to our right mind by stepping back from the drawing and gaining the necessary distance. I recall on many occasions while learning to draw, how my tutors would point out some glaring error of scale, even though I insisted I had measured it ‘correctly’ several times. It was usually not any specific length that was wrong, it was always the overall proportions, the relationships and the bigger picture. In light of reading The Master and His Emissary, I now look at the many ways of looking and drawing I have learned, practised, or taught with another layer of ‘hemispheric’ richness. Is there any area of life where Iain McGilchrist’s books cannot shed light? I have searched the web looking for some examples of ‘Slade School style’ drawings, as it is a term well-known in the UK art world, but have drawn a blank. So here’s an early student effort from me aged 18, being taught mainly by tutors from the Slade and Byam Shaw Schools, while at Shelley Park in Bournemouth.
Five of the seven drawings featured this week no longer exist. Luckily I’d photographed a few things over the years. I am slowly going through the digital files. It is surprisingly good fun in small doses.