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I was beside myself
On not being present
While I begin diving into the reading needed for future essays, I have been enjoying many other writers here, as we all grapple with the Machine, and how it famously co-opts our attention. I particularly valued‘s excellent recent piece. It prompted me to publish this essay I wrote in November last year, as it is not only technology which keeps us separate from our hearts and each other. The Machine certainly seems to have a will of its own now, but it was originally born from a split in the human psyche, (and from fundamentally misconstruing the modes of our bicameral brains.) In this piece, none of the distractions, nor my inability to be fully present, are attributable to ‘outside factors’ such as pervasive attention harvesting technologies, like smartphones, (unless you count the whole of one’s society and upbringing as ‘outside’, which I don’t, really.)
I think it is timely, as I have not only returned to The Classics this year, but also to sitting meditation and other beneficial methods from within my tradition. It feels good to be journeying alongside friends in other faiths and practices this Lent, as we return to our sources for nourishment, so that we can better revitalise our art, communities, families and locales. If that is you too, I send you a hearty greeting, wherever you are.
7th November 2022
As a matter of survival, I became accustomed to not being present. Among others, I could appear present, sound present, and accomplish social tasks such as conversation, seeming interested, and attending to the needs of others. But I was not really there. How long did this go on for? About 40 years, on and off. I got married and divorced without consistently being present. I toured the United States of America and Poland with my band, similarly absent, twice. Being profoundly dislocated is not a barrier to getting stuff done, in fact, one can be much more efficient when existing slightly beside oneself. The Machine values efficiency, and people like it when your intricate systems mean you remember their birthday and always send cards on time. The likelihood of being called-out for not being there recedes, as everyone is accustomed to your manner, or rather, the manner of your shell. The frozen ache that for decades ravages the heart is felt as though just off to the left, outside the body, like the chill in a damp room, best avoided.
Today, the panoply of ways in which I have practiced not-being-where-I-am are clear, after waking from a (not unusual) night of adventure dreams, full of challenges, questions and fierce interlocutors. I am not complaining, I long ago made friends with dreaming Caro, and she is the best flat mate you could ask for. She is always quiet as I go about my day, and often leaves me interesting things to look at in the morning, after her nightshift, like a beloved sibling who leaves a magazine open on the breakfast table at an article they know you’ll be interested in reading. I have learned to take note of what she shows me, as she frequently knows long before ‘I’ do what is going on.
It is not to say that I haven’t ever been fully present. There have been longer and shorter periods of showing up in the moment, (though very rarely during classic sitting meditation, until recently). When I work with my hands, cooking, crafting, drawing, sewing. When I am enjoying good sex with someone I love, when deep in conversation with a friend, when writing it all down, like now, for instance. When I am foraging for fruit, nuts, ochre, oak galls, fungi… At these and other really embodied times, I am fully present, alive to my fingertips, and feel myself to be right where I am.
Now, you’d think I was present when teaching T’ai Chi for almost 20 years. Well, often I was. But it is surprising how much you can be slightly ahead of the moment when you are planning the next section of the lesson, checking to see how an instruction has landed with a student, managing the moods and energy of the room. Or when studying: comparing oneself to classmates, judging other people’s T’ai Chi, wondering what to do at the weekend, ruminating on slights and grudges, aches and pains, fantasising. The ways to not quite be present are infinite but the same cannot be said of the ways to be fully there.
The second time I met my late Grandmaster John Kells, despite his being almost totally blind, and in the middle of a huddle of his favoured male students, he had me down in a second: ‘Got ourselves a little serving girl, have we?’ he remarked, as I brought him a cup of jasmine tea.Accurately pinned, I winced my way to the back of the class and wondered what he meant, not yet having recognised the extent of my people-pleasing habits, and the fearful controlling mechanism behind them. (Nor had he yet admitted his old-school misogyny.) The bitter taste of periodic skewering has been a constant in my life: spaced far enough apart and rare enough that I could almost forget the last before the next, but with the same metallic tang and unpalatable flavour, the same hot cheeks and cold shiver. Not this again! How? Why? I thought I had got it right…
One time at the school, John asked me to really ‘let my energy out’; an impossible request which meant nothing to me in those days apart from being a sure prompt to feeling inadequate and confused. In sheer frustration I did express something in my movements, I am not sure what, and John said, ‘That’s something, at least. But it feels like it came from a couple of feet to the side of you.’ He turned in disappointment and walked away.
I could write about how in the #metoo era, much of his behaviour towards women would have been called-out. I could tell you about the time I went to see him, long after leaving, to ask him to face up to the rampant sexism in his school (equally commonplace then in so many martial arts, yoga and meditation schools, it must be said). But it doesn’t change the fact that he was right about me. In a teaching letter straight out of a film cliché, ‘almost blind martial arts master gives novice student a damning assessment’, he wrote that I used T’ai Chi as a way to keep the world at bay, and that I was free to do so, but that he called this a living death. Because I was lucky enough that my practice had recently brought me to that place where the whole edifice of mind collapses, and I was left quaking, as though newly arrived on earth, and being fortunate enough to have a teacher who could guide me through that dark night, and not take advantage in any way, I was able to hear the truth in John’s words, and not reject the bitter medicine.
This was the beginning of concertedly returning to reality. It is the work of years, not months. I do not consider the work ever to be completed, as there are always illusions to peel back. It is an acquired taste, not to wish to delude oneself, but to attempt to show up raw in reality in all its mess. When I am really here, I am not avoiding the discomfort nor the beauty of life, not wishing I was elsewhere - not in the future, not reminiscing about the past. My personal flavour of avoidance of the present is to be slightly ahead of myself, in plans and arrangements. Conversely, several past-partners avoided being present by reminiscing about a golden time long gone, or ruminating on an unhappy past. Perhaps we made complementary pairs. When I became fully ‘collapse aware’, a little while before I discovered The Dark Mountain Project in 2014, I lost the last barrier to dropping that habit of running into the future to escape the present. In some sense, the unravelling and possibly apocalyptic future sent me back to the present moment and made me reside here more fully.
How I got to be split, armoured and absent, was a matter of having a very bad man for a father and yet of being the only one who ever ‘got away’. I won’t write more about that man here, or elsewhere, as it is not only my story to tell.To grow up in a home housing a huge malevolent presence, yet never being told anything is in any way wrong, is to learn at a very young age, and at a cellular level, double-think and self-gaslighting, to discount and over-ride your feelings. I’d love to think this is rare, but sadly it is statistically commonplace, according to Bessel Van Der Kolk MD in his excellent book, The Body Keeps The Score.
How did it manifest? Amnesia, whole weeks disappearing, friends lost due to plans forgotten, blanking people I had already met, their puzzled faces new to me. Abject fear of zeros and capital ‘O’s, of light switches. Years spent being ruled by lists, by lists of lists. Seeing my arm in a mirror, and knowing it not to be my own. Spending decades doing almost what I wanted but not quite, harnessing my energy to some skilful man’s excellent dreams, rather than my own, not through any coercion, but because I was beside myself.
When people called me out for inauthenticity, it would come as a such a shock. A school friend wanting nothing to do with me, a bandmate inexplicably furious, an onlooker noticing me glibly show someone some T’ai Chi moves, a partner sick of half-truths. I don’t list these things to berate myself, (I have made amends in all the cases where I could, as best I can); but instead to notice a pattern. I sought always to make things nice on the surface, to make things work, the armour articulating impressively. To be present to real life is often to feel profound discomfort, which for a long time was unbearable for me. Formed, even in the womb, in the chronic struggle between safety and danger, and brought up in the cognitive dissonance of truth withheld and circumstances denied, although I wanted to learn as I grew, I demanded to do so without further pain. On earth, that is not possible.
Tonight, sitting quietly as the south-westerly wind howls up my street from the Solent and leaves salt frosting on the windows, I have yet again written myself back into the moment. When I was not present, I did not know I was not present. Until, through the great good fortune of finding the physical practice of lineage T’ai Chi that would begin to dismantle my armouring, I was destined to be stuck, haemorrhaging vitality, getting exhausted, not knowing why I felt displaced and ill at ease. ‘Through correct practice, transformation is possible’. That’s a truism of both Tao and T’ai Chi. It is also true of any authentic path worth its salt. It was sometimes deeply unpleasant (in a very interesting way) to work for years on solo movements and pushing hands with others, where I was always up against my own mind as well as any partner. There were countless sobs of freedom as each little bit (or huge chunk) of tightness of mind, heart or body, fell away, allowing breath to flow in, initiating movements toward freedom.
From all this, over the last decade, much later than is ideal, I learned how to experience my conscience. Conscience is in the body.Unless you can feel how you really feel, no one else’s feelings can truly make an impression on you, and you cannot take them to heart, only go through the motions of what seems appropriate until the next time you fuck up because you don’t really understand the rules. By finally feeling my own losses, shortcomings, shocks and injuries, and by yielding to my conditioning, as John Kells would have put it, I finally came (mostly) to reside right where I am, in the unsatisfactory, uncertain present, the only place where anything actually happens, the only place where anyone truly lives.
I’m still fairly new here, and am prone to standing looking up at the trees and down at the ground, seeming a little odd, probably, while just feeling amazed that I can finally be here.
This week’s good thing: Midsummer week I’m going to be teaching on The Labyrinth and the Dancing Floor at Schumacher College, Devon, with my excellent colleagues from Dark Mountain, Charlotte DuCann, Mark Watson and Nick Hunt. How can we break out of the modern industrial mindset that holds us captive, and find our feet on the dancing floor of Earth? Join us, while we wend our way through this conundrum together. We chose this painting by Thomas Little as our course image. You can see more incredible art by him, support his work taking guns out of circulation, and even buy some of his alchemical inks here.
The essay is rather more personal than I had originally intended to share with *gestures widely at entire internet*. But I wish to get to the heart of things, particularly why we have become so atomised, even when we are comparatively materially safe, so on balance, I felt it was appropriate. I’ll see how I feel about that next week.
All pictures this week are from 2006-2007. The first three are from a day at Kew Gardens with two great friends. The last picture of stones is from the Aberdeenshire coast, the day I left Scotland to return to England to study T’ai Chi seriously. Suddenly today, the sticks remind me of the tarot card ‘The Hanged Man’, inverted.
I have deep respect and gratitude to John for his teaching, even when it was hard. We met again warmly, years later, when I had accomplished the work that was needed, (and he had softened noticeably, too). My teacher and four of his students went to see him in Chepstow and we had a wonderful day of Heart Work. He said; 'You did it! You did it!’ as I came through the door. I could have wept.
I share personal details here pertinent to uncovering the natural process so that it may be of benefit to others on the path. Detailed memoir per se holds no allure for me, having seen a few friends flayed by tiny blades sewn into the hems of its fine fitted garments, whether their own, or others’.