All that follows is my amateur attempt to synthesise what I've taken from Matt Licata's The Path is Everywhere. I do add a few of my own twists, so don't hold Matt accountable for any silliness you discover here...
As a young child, I was by nature drawn to connection with those around me. In fact, in my early development I was dependent on their acceptance, recognition and affection. I had no fear that these were contingent, no worry that my love would go unanswered.
Then, life happened, and I learned from my experience. Bear in mind that I was raised in a safe, healthy, loving, stable household like many children can only dream of. Still, my experiential learning in those early days included shocking, life-changing lessons.
It taught me that behaving in certain ways, displaying particular emotions, saying the wrong thing meant that one or more of those on whose love I depended rejected me, failed to see me as I was, withheld (even for the briefest moment) their precious affection. Behaving in other ways won these most desired prizes in special measure.
As a vulnerable little thing, I learned that I was not safe but was at risk of chronic misunderstanding, rejection and abandonment. As a charitably minded little thing, I knew that these precious, loving people around me would not do this without good reason. As an adaptive, capable little thing, I learned that while in some ways I was good, there was something fundamentally wrong with me. It became clear that I was unworthy of the very thing for which I most yearned, love.
One term for this package of good things of which I was incapable or undeserving and bad things that I'd identified as the sources of my undeservingness is the shadow. In my simple mind, I think of it as: Me (the big, whole masterpiece that I am) minus this shadow equals me (the limited, 'acceptable' bit of Me that seems to stand a better chance of being loved and a lesser chance of being abandoned).
The whole process of splitting (self-abandonment) that I've awkwardly summarised was the right thing for me to do at the time, given the capabilities I had as a young child. It was not a mistake or a crime.
My best guess is that everything I've said above applies no more to me than it does to everyone else alive, although the specifics of what one shunts away into shadow differs by culture and by individual. Well, I guess everything above except that I was lucky enough to be in a peaceful, stable, loving household. Too many (and one is too many) children did not have that good fortune.
Nor were the activities of the loving circle of people around me, their behaviour that preceded my splitting myself in this way, cosmic fuck ups. Those behaviours were simply adults carrying out the process that I'll now describe for my adult self. They were acting from a standpoint of their 'me' rather than their 'Me'. But as I'll discuss a bit further, the shadow - theirs, mine and yours - is part of the world, part of reality, and it WILL always find its way into the light of day, no matter how much we seek to sequester it in the dungeon.
As an adult, I now possess, although for much of my life I did not recognise it, a richer set of capabilities for relating to the world than my young child self did. Not recognising this, however, I've spent decades relying on the once-appropriate child's toolbox anytime the splinters of me that that child hid away pop up to present themselves. These visits by members of the shadow community can appear as 'internal' experiences or as my filtering and interpretation of 'external experiences', including the words and actions of other people.
My replaying of the child's solution results in my turning / running from these visitors. This doesn't make me a bad person, and there is no reason for me to beat myself up about it.
But one might ask, why are these splinters visiting? Their visit is a necessity. They are part of reality, part of Me. As a child grasping for solutions, I tried to tuck them away as if they didn't exist, but that didn't change reality. Reality and the big Me are too magnificent to be bottled in such a way. These splinters know all too well that they are part of Me. Their recognition of their unity with me, coupled with their inescapable longing to rejoin me to re-organise as Me, is Love.
Yet, the visits are always uncomfortable for me. This discomfort tends to be the trigger that activates my 'autoplay' of the childhood strategy of avoidance. So what am I to do? What is one to do? Well, there are whole books, including Matt's excellent one, written about that.
My short oversimplification is that I can use those very same triggers, my noticing of sensations of discomfort in my own body, as signals to alert me to an alternative response. The good news is that, in one sense, there is nothing I have to do in lieu of my habituated avoidance response. The invitation that these signals issue is to sit with and hold, in a gentle, loving, non-judging way, those visitors, not seeking to do anything with them. I do this by sitting with the physical discomfort that announces and constitutes them - only for as long as I can. It may be just a few seconds at first.
These few seconds of sitting with and holding the discomfort of these visits from the shadow allow me to see that they don't constitute an existential threat to me. I can survive them. Bit by bit, slowly, patiently, gently over weeks, months and years, I can welcome and re-integrate more and more of the historical visitors back into Me. At some point, it becomes apparent that these visitors were never outside of Me; it was only me who thought so. These visitors are part of life, and I love Matt's quote:
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
This doesn't culminate in a finish line, beyond which all is rosy and smooth. We don't purchase or earn exemption from the tough side of life. We don't buy certainty. Life remains mystery. Reality includes all opposites. Even once all historical visitors have been welcomed home, reality will send us guests. A life lived with the gentle, loving openness I've described isn't one in which reality filters out the unwanted guests for us. It is one in which we are increasingly able to welcome all guests, even the ones who bear discomfort and seeming threat in their arms.
And perhaps, in time, it becomes clear that this reality that sends the guests and this Me who welcomes them are the same undivided whole. And that recognition of wholeness, too, is Love.
Dear Martin nearly chokes on his milk and honey shake when he sees none other than St. Peter strolling across Paradise Square toward Angel Burger.
"St. Peter, aren't you meant to be at the Pearly Gate?"
"Greetings, Dear Martin. No, no. I've made myself redundant. I must say, I'm enjoying the leisure time and the chance to see a bit more of Heaven. The Gate is beautiful, but running immigration control for eternity isn't as easy as it looks."
"But who is looking after the Gate, making the delicate judgements as to who shall join us from Earth?"
"No one! The Gate's been shut. And none too soon, I'll say. We've finally said 'Enough is enough,' and fortified ourselves against the migrants from earth and other shit hole mortal realms. Haven't you been reading the scrolls? Does the term 'Heaxit' ring a bell? We're ridding ourselves of burdensome associations with outsiders."
"But St. Peter, what hope do mortals have without access to Heaven? What do they have to work toward? What to prove their worthiness for? How shall the last be first and so on?"
"Dear Martin, we've replaced the concepts of good and bad as qualification for entry. Henceforth, worthiness will be based on origin. It's infinitely simpler. "
"Which origins are acceptable?"
"Ours. Unless one arrives by private jet."
"But is that fair?
"What could be more obvious? If they deserved to be here, they already would be!"
"But aren't we, you and I, all of us, just lucky to have arrived earlier?"
"Dear Martin, I prefer to think that we made our own luck. I mean, just look at them! They are so, so... how do I put this? DIFFERENT! No wings, disturbing solidity where there should be translucence. They don't even have the courtesy to speak Cherubic! Need I go on?"
"What is to become of the human race, St. Peter?"
"Is that our concern? They should just sort out their own realm. Okay, it's not like I completely lack feeling for them, but our priority has got to be making Heaven great again. We've got to protect our original, true Heavenly culture."
"St. Peter, this doesn't sound at all like Heaven's way. If you'll forgive my saying so, it sounds like something from Uranus."
Untroubled, St. Peter strides away, over the unmarked mass graves of the aboriginal celestials, from whom the angels liberated Heaven so long ago. He studiously ignores the scattered brimstone that increasingly litters the once cloudy undulations of the Elysian Fields.
I've been reading Michael A. Singer's The Untethered Soul, in which he expresses the need for openness very well. My paraphrase of what I take as his central message is, "All fortresses are also prisons."
We erect and occupy fortresses - be they physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological or ideological - to protect us from something outside them. And what are we protecting? Ourselves, which is to say our selves, our egos. Our egoic fortresses are the assembled constructs - collections of images, narratives and labels - that give us the impression of solidity, durability and independence from the flux of change that surrounds us. We hide in these redoubts in the hope of defining a realm of control within a vast sea in which we recognise we have none. We cower in them for comfort.
These bunkers of self-definition need constant maintenance to keep them from crumbling. The insistent flow of reality splashes against them and drags at their foundations incessantly. What else do we expect to happen when we try to set fixed positions in a reality that rushes, dancing and laughing, at and past it in perpetual renewal? Our tenets and definitions of self, based on the past pain and pleasure, now frozen, cannot help but conflict with ever-evolving reality. Which do you think wins?
But let's come back to the twin-faced nature of these citadels. How are they also prisons? Do we not see that, however effective they are in keeping out the things that might cause us pain or discomfort, they are at least as effective at denying us access to much beyond the walls that would bring us delight. Our fortresses protect our comfort at the cost of our freedom. Avoiding exposure to that which we fear, we equally cut ourselves off from much for which we yearn.
Alas, we cannot have both untroubled comfort and the freedom to recognise our own peace and wholeness.
You can read Singer, who says all of this so much better, for yourself, but I'll let you in on some good news. These fortresses are a simple matter (not the same as an easy task) to bring down. The world itself, the collision of reality against the fortress walls, will bring them down, if only we will stop shoring them back up. A further happy truth: our repair of these walls has been soaking up untold amounts of our life energy, and all of that becomes available to us if we can relax and release from our defense of them.
The Kindle version of Phil Grimm's Progress is currently #2 in the Kindle bestseller list for Religious/Inspirational Science Fiction & Fantasy.
If you don't have a copy yet, it's on free promotion this week on Amazon.
My modern myth for anxious times, Phil Grimm's Progress is now out in paperback as well as through Kindle Books.
Some (many?) of you don't have an eReader. I'm no longer discriminating against you. Give it a go, and use Amazon reviews or Goodreads to let me know what you think.
The Non-dualogues share the conversations between slumberfogey and the pilgrim, in slumberfogey’s flat in London. Occasionally, the pilgrim brings friends, who join in the discussion.
slumberfogey: Pilgrim! Hello. It's been a while.
pilgrim: Hi slumberfogey. I was afraid you wouldn't remember me. I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been able to visit. But I have managed to do some of my homework.
s: Looking for boundaries in your experience?
p: Yep, but I never really found any. Was I supposed to?
s: You know what? I'd like to put boundaries aside this week and talk about freedom.
p: Okay, man. It's a free country. (Pun intended.)
s: Readers are going to think my old man humour is contagious. Now, remind me who you are. I need to see whether we need to backtrack at all after our break.
p: I don't think we do! I am the experiencer of my experience. I'm that which knows, is aware of, what is happening: all the thoughts, perceptions and ideas that flow constantly through my life.
s: Excellent! And when we do pick back up on boundaries, we'll investigate the nature of the relationship between your experience (aka what is happening) and you (the experiencer of what is happening). We'll look for the boundary between them.
But first, there's a fair bit that follows naturally from your re-orientation of who you are, and I'd like us to investigate those implications. They are revolutionary.
p: Sounds great. Here's your tea. So, what are the 'so whats' of my discovery that what I am is the experiencer of what is happening?
s: First, let's adopt a bit of shorthand. "The experiencer of what is happening" is a bit of a mouthful, so let's say that you are the Witness, that is, the witness of your experience.
p: Okay. I'm the Witness. What next?
s: Summarise what you know about yourself, about the Witness.
p: Uh-oh. Is this one of those moments when I feel really stupid while you quiz me?
s: You can't be stupid. That's one of the 'so whats.' Anyway, start with what you know the Witness is not.
p: Okay, it's not a thought, a perception or a sensation, or any combination of them.
s: Why do you say that?
p: Because those are all objects. I (the Witness) am not an object at all. I am pure subjectivity. That's why when I really, carefully search for myself, I come up empty. Only objects can be 'seen.' Subjectivity can't.
s: Spot on, PIlgrim! Now let's look at the radical nature of the freedom that the Witness's pure subjectivity implies for you.
p: Okay. Let's.
p: Oh. So you want me to pick it up? Um. Okay, yeah. Radical freedom. Yeah. It makes me feel like I'm... um... really free(?).
s: Sounds like some hints are in order. If we, for the purposes of today's discussion, split life into two halves - what is happening on the one hand and the Witness that experiences it on the other - what verbs 'live' in each half? Starting with the Witness 'half,' what verbs can the Witness be the subject of?
p: Well, the Witness can witness, which is basically to observe or to experience. Breaking that down, I guess the witness can see, hear, smell, feel, taste, think, remember. How am I doing?
s: Great, as always. But I think you might have overshot things a bit, while simultaneously leaving one huge one out. To be clear about what sits where, it's probably most helpful to think of seeing as 'experiencing a visual object,' hearing as 'experiencing an auditory object,' etc. Do you see what I mean?
p: I don't know why that's more helpful, but I'm fine with boiling them down to experience. So does that mean that I've basically identified one Witness verb - experiencing - and I'm missing one other big one? I can't think of what else it could be.
s: That's right. You've nailed the experiencing aspect of the Witness. The second is that it can be. It is. See what I mean?
p: Not really, I thought you said the Witness isn't any object that can be seen or experienced. But I guess it must exist if it is what I am.
s: There is a subtle distinction between the verbs to exist and to be, which we won't dive into now, but yes, since the Witness is what you are, it is. It can be the subject of the verb 'to be.' So, the Witness can experience and it can be. It's important to see that all other verbs are contained in the flow, the existence of what is happening - the other half of the equation. The Witness does not 'do' any of those other things.
p: I'm only vaguely with you, slumberfogey. That's certainly not the way I feel. I mean, if I'm the Witness, I certainly feel like I eat, think, walk, decide, intend, regret and a million other activities.
s: I don't disagree at all that it feels that way. I also don't expect you to just take my words at face value. But in the coming weeks, re-visit them and have them in mind as you go about life. Don't forget how comprehensive What Is Happening is. It is literally everything that occurs. You, as the Witness experience What Is Happening. The tastes, textures and other sensations of eating, along with the memories it evokes and the other thoughts that arise with it, including the subtle, underlying feeling that you are a person, a body-mind, are all part of the flow of What Is Happening. You, as the Witness, experience them.
p: I'll keep it in mind and see what my experience tells me.
s: I can't ask for anything more! So, you, as the Witness don't carry out any activities other than being and experiencing. How about as an object? What verbs can the Witness be an object of? If a boy kicks a can, then the can is the object of the verb 'to kick.' How about the Witness?
p: Well, we've already said that it's not an object at all. If that's right (and I still need to play around with this) then it's not the object of any verb. In your example, the kicking happens to the can, but in the grand scheme, What Is Happening doesn't happen to the Witness. Is that right? And yet, the Witness experiences it, so doesn't that mean What Is Happening happens to the Witness after all?
s: You'll need to experiment with it, but what I've found is that What Is Happening doesn't happen to the Witness but arises to the Witness's awareness. (Actually, the Witness IS awareness, but we'll leave that aside for now. Even this 'arising to' will update as we look at the relationship between the Witness and What Is Happening, as your understanding deepens.) So, I've asserted, and it's up to you to experiment and test, that the Witness is neither the subject (the 'doer') nor the object (the 'recipient') of any activity, of anything that is happening, of What Is Happening.
p: Almost like someone watching a film or a play.
s: Very well put! Or someone dreaming. That's the Witness, and that is you. Now, what do you think all of this might have to do with freedom?
p: Oh, that's right! You said freedom was our topic for today. I'm not sure, to be honest. That the Witness is free from being the subject or the object of anything that is happening?
s: Yes! Remember when I loosely substituted 'doer' for subject a minute ago? And 'recipient' for object? What things come with being the doer and recipient, respectively?
p: The doer is responsible, and the recipient bears consequences. Are you saying that the Witness is, that I am, free of responsibility and consequence? That sounds like a proposition that would - if everyone believed it - undermine morality, justice and social order, for a start!
s: Only if it's misunderstood. We're stating things quite bluntly at the moment. It's very important to remember that this freedom applies to you AS THE WITNESS, not to 'you' as a person, a body-mind. You are NOT a body-mind. The body-mind is a fragment of What Is Happening. It is on that side of the equation that conditions, limits and unfolding process exist. The Witness, that which you are, is free of all that. But... when What Is Happening includes the understanding that the Witness is the only experiencer and that the Witness is free from all limits, then the person, the body-mind, as a fragment of What Is Happening will feel free. The freedom that will emerge is freedom from fear - fearlessness. Our picture of freedom will evolve further as we consider the relationship between the Witness and What Is Happening, also as we consider other minds.
p: I don't think I really get that. I find it hard to keep from involuntarily flipping back to thinking of 'I' as the person rather than as the Witness. I lose track of which the freedom applies to.
s: That's completely understandable. We'll revisit this together many times, and in the meantime, you'll experiment with it in your own experience. For now, our pointer is that you are the Witness and that the Witness is free of limit. Realising that will mean that the person, pilgrim, the body-mind, will include less and less fear. That is the understanding's effect within What Is Happening. In the meantime, as you experiment, it may be interesting for you to notice the limits, the conditioning that the pilgrim, as a person, is subject to.
p: Phew. My head is spinning more than from any other visit. You're right, that's a revolutionary take on freedom. I have the feeling we'll need to kick it around more. See you next time, slumberfogey.
Phil Grimm's Progress, my humble attempt to re-orient the western world-view, is out.
As I mentioned in a recent post, PGP is my take at using fiction to address ideas I've only encountered in non-fiction. How well that works is for you to decide.
My guess is that societal division and polarisation move in cycles, like most everything else. But given my life hasn't been long enough to see whole cycles, today is about as divided and defensive a time as I've come across.
PGP is, in one way, essentially about how we get trapped in stories that close our minds, how we take (often unknowingly) assumptions and all that derives from them as certainties.
Of course, I have a certain take on the current world situation, and I guess that can't help but come across in the book. Some of you think similarly, others very differently. But the main point of the book, delivered in mythical form, is that we've got to put down our shields of certainty to listen to and truly consider what one another think and feel. Else we're just on auto-pilot, aping words and enraged gestures we've taken from someone else, isolating and thereby losing ourselves.
You can buy Phil Grimm's Progress at most of your favourite online book retailers. Leave a rating or review (especially if you like it!).
The Non-dualogues share the conversations between slumberfogey and the pilgrim, in slumberfogey’s flat in London. Sometimes, the pilgrim brings friends, who join in the discussion.
slumberfogey: Pilgrim! At last. You're late!
pilgrim: Isn't 11am a good time for you?
s: No, I mean two months late. My biscuits ran out seven weeks ago.
p: slumberfogey, I told you I'd be away for two months. I've been on a building project in Central America.
s: Oh, I remember now. Still, no biscuits.
p: I've got biscuits with me. Shall I put on the tea? What are we discussing today?
s: Who are you?
p: You recognise me, don't you? I'm Gary, but you always call me pilgrim.
s: So "Gary" is your name or "pilgrim" labels you, but is either who you are?
p: Oh, I get it. We're diving straight in, then. So I'll skip the bits covering where I'm from, what I do for money, what party I vote for, my ethnicity and my religion, because knowing you, you're looking for something different...
s: So, you are...?
p: Well, just a bloke. A person. A human. (An Arsenal fan.)
s: Don't sell yourself short. You're not "just" anything. But let's take "person." Did you say you had biscuits?
p: Yes! I'm bringing them out with the tea. Okay, so yeah, I'm a person.
s: And when you say you're a person, you mean you are... what? What is a person?
p: An individual.
s: Interesting. Let's remember that word and come back to it. So an individual what? And don't say "person," because we don't want to go in circles. You've already said a person is an individual.
p: An individual body, I guess.
s: Anything special about the body? Would a cadaver count?
p: No. A living body.
s: Ah. So you are a living body. How are you aware you're living?
p: Being alive is obvious. I'm moving around and stuff.
s: To pick up on the line of questioning I'm taking you on, pause for a moment and hearken back to our discussion last time about "what is happening." Although two months have passed, I hope we don't need to replay the whole discovery.
*** Intermission ***
p: Right, so I'll try to keep my answers to what I can be certain of. My direct experience.
s: Excellent! So, according to your direct experience, what is the body?
p: Well. I see it when I look at my hands, chest, legs or feet. I see my face's reflection in the mirror. So an aspect of the body is images I experience.
s: Great. What else?
p: I feel it all the time. My hand can touch my belly or slap my thigh. I feel my teeth chatter. My stomach rumbles. (I hear that as well.) My heart beats. I sense my limbs' position. Body movement, warmth, cold, hunger. So I guess the body is also a bundle of sounds and sensations.
s: Super. Anything else?
p: I smell my breath, too. I taste my lip bleeding or sweat rolling into my mouth. I guess the body is a collection of the same types of perception that come from "out in the world" plus the internal sensations.
s: Interesting. "Internal." Internal to what?
p: Internal to my body.
s: But you say - as far as you can tell from your direct experience - your body is those things. So some of those things can't be "internal" to the body. That's saying bits of the body are internal to itself, while other bits aren't.
p: I'm not used to examining the body this way, so I get tied up in how to express myself.
s: You're doing great. Just consider more carefully within what those perceptions and "internal" sensations rest.
p: Wait! I've got it! They sit in my mind. I am my mind!
s: So you are not your body but your mind?
p: Well, perhaps it's not so simple, since the mind is dependent on the body.
s: How so?
p: The mind depends on the brain, which is part of the body.
s: How does your direct experience tell you this?
s: How do you experience your mind's dependence on the brain?
p: I guess I don't. I base it on what others say and what I've read.
s: Okay. I'm not saying it's wrong. The mind may be dependent on the body, but let's stick with the things you can know, from your direct experience.
p: Yeah. So I'm sticking with saying I am my mind.
s: Do you, as a mind, include or contain anything else beyond the perceptions and sensations of the body?
p: Ah! Well, I have millions of ideas, memories, emotions, expectations, wishes and judgements in my mind. I guess my will sits in the same place.
s: Yes. Lot's more stuff, huh? When you say those things sit in the same place, what is that place?
p: My mind.
s: But if you are the mind, what is the "My" bit? If you are the mind, then saying "My mind" is equivalent to saying "My me."
p: But I'm distinguishing my mind from other minds.
s: What is your direct experience of other minds?
p: Ah, I get you. My experience is only through sights, sounds and other perceptions, which we've covered. I don't experience other minds. So are you saying they don't exist?
s: Well, that would be hard for me to say, since slumberfogey is one of them! No, they may well exist, but let's stick with what you can be sure of from your direct experience. We're taking empiricism seriously.
p: Okay, so I'll get rid of the "my." All those forms of thought and all perceptions of the body, plus all body sensations sit in me.
s: You say the perceptions of the body sit in you. Do the perceptions of the rest of the world (the images of the surrounding room, the sound of passing traffic, etc.) sit somewhere else?
p: No. Same place.
s: So all perceptions, sensations and thoughts sit within you, yes? So who or what are you?
p: I am the mind.
s: What is the mind?
p: I'm getting tired. I dunno. The container of those things?
s: Seeing things in a whole new way can be taxing. Those "things," those perceptions, sensations and thoughts. Do you remember how we rolled them up in our last meeting?
p: Oh yeah. I worked out (with your help) that I don't ever experience those different categories. They all come in bundled, undivided experience.
s: Exactly! And my little term for undivided experience is "What Is Happening." So, who or what are you?
p: If the mind is What Is Happening and I am my mind, I guess I am What Is Happening. Right?
s: You sound uncertain. How can you be certain What Is Happening is happening?
p: Arrrrrggggggghhhhhhh! This is exhausting. I always feel stupid when you do this.
s: Sorry. Maybe The Trial of Socrates is inaccurate. Perhaps his students killed him out of frustration.
p: What? What are you on about?
s: A classical allusion, young man. You guys have lost touch with your roots. Not enough time. Back to my question...
p: How do I know What Is Happening is happening? Because I'm experiencing it! It is my direct experience.
s: Right. You're not an inert container of those aspects of experience, of What Is Happening. You are its experiencer. So who are you?
p: I am the experiencer of What Is Happening.
s: Perfect! And What Is Happening is the flow of experience arising to awareness and receding to make way for the continuing flow "behind."
p: So I'm the experiencer, but I don't know what the experiencer is. I'm not the body - I experience the sensations and perceptions making up my direct experience of the body. Likewise, I'm not the mind - I experience the thoughts that are my direct experience of it. And, I'm not the external environment - I experience the perceptions composing my direct experience of the external world. So what am I?
s: That's what I asked you! And you've peeled away a lot of confusion. You've worked out that you are no thing (nothing). The things are aspects of What Is Happening. You are the experiencer of the things. If you still seek yourself as an object, as a thing, you'll come up empty. You - the experiencer - are not a thing.
p: I'm not sure how thrilled I am to be nothing. So my school teachers and ex-girlfriends were right.
s: Maybe it's not so bad. You used to believe you were a thing - a body or a mind or their union. You now see you are not a thing. Perhaps a further step awaits discovery. Are you willing to take on some homework?
s: Okay. Between now and when we next meet, look for boundaries.
s: I'd like you to investigate different boundaries on several "levels." I'll email this to you, but hear me out.
What would this imply for what you are???
Let's discuss what you find.
Until next week, pilgrim.
Phil Grimm's Progress is off for its final edit, with Phil Owens. Unless I hit unforeseen snags, I'll publish it - in ebook form - by the end of April. We'll see about print.
It started last summer, a week after returning from a camper van trip with J to Holland and Denmark. I often have wakeful periods in the middle of the night. Those periods began to fill with ideas for a story - in mythic form. I'd recently re-read Parzival and the Stone from Heaven, and I pictured a spiritual seeker with little self-knowledge, on a quest to discover himself.
I'd read lots of nonfiction about Taoism, Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and non-dualism more generally, but I'd never come across a modern allegorical approach. In my less humble moments, I imagined penning a cross between Parzival, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Tao of Pooh and Sophie's World. My aim was a fictional work that illuminated, entertaining along the way.
The book wrote itself over the next seven weeks, although it was only just over 50k words in that first draft. Realising I had no idea how to write a book, let alone get one published, I turned to professional help from Alice Peck. Because she's such a pleasure to work with, Alice is very busy. I paused for a while for her to come free and tear into my manuscript. In the meantime, I gave it to a few patient early readers.
By Christmas, the draft was back in my hands, along with feedback from Alice and the first readers. After a few weeks' work, the second draft went out to a next round of helpful guinea pigs. The discussions with them raised three significant points:
"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"
So, a major re-write occupied and entertained me for another four or five weeks. Then I tucked into an involved round of self-editing - reapplying the "rules" that Alice had taught me. The book expanded to just over 80k words.
Then, when I learned that Phil helped one of my favourite new sci-fi authors, Ian Sainsbury, I contacted him for the finishing touches.
There you have it, the story of Phil Grimm's conception and impending birth. Watch this space for updates and launch announcement!
The Non-dualogues share the conversations between slumberfogey and the pilgrim, in slumberfogey’s flat in London. Occasionally, the pilgrim brings friends, who join in the discussion.
slumberfogey: Ah. You’ve come back! Excellent. Did you pass the Sainsburys on your way here? It’s just a few doors down.
pilgrim: Don’t worry. I have biscuits.
s: Biscuits. What a wonderful idea! Thank you.
p: While I make the tea, can you tell me how we’ll get started?
s: You are a quick study, aren’t you? Okay, why don’t you start by telling me what is happening?
p: Let’s see… Arsenal lost to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup this week, which has put my knickers in a twist. My mum’s boiler’s on the blink, so I have to find someone to sort that. I got a pay rise, which brings me almost up to minimum wage…
s: Slow down. Everything you’ve said (except perhaps the knicker thing) is about the past or the future. I mean what is happening, now? Let’s even capitalize it - What Is Happening?
p: Right now, I’d say, Prime Minister’s Questions are happening, for what it’s worth. Polar bears are starving. Tottenham fans are having a giggle.
s: Pilgrim. Are you in a grumpy mood? Have a biscuit, and let’s be more precise.
p: I’m not sure exactly how many polar bears are starving.
s: I mean, none of those things is in your direct experience right now. Ideas about them are, granted. But tell me What, in your direct, indisputable experience, Is Happening. Now.
p: I’m sipping tea, chewing a biscuit, and trying to speak at the same time.
s: That’s an excellent start! How do you know you’re sipping tea?
p: What do you mean, how do I know? I’m right here, sipping. And this, (slurp) is tea!
s: You’re handling this moment with the precision of a World War II bombardier. Imagine yourself more like a laser eye surgeon. What Is Happening?
p: I’m imagining myself as a laser eye surgeon.
s: Are you taking the piss? Okay. How are you certain you’re imagining yourself as a laser eye surgeon?
p: I feel like I’m missing something here. Or maybe you are.
s: How are you sure you’re not dreaming of picturing yourself as a laser eye surgeon?
p: Because I’m sitting here, awake, and a bit annoyed.
s: If you were dreaming, wouldn’t it also seem like you were awake?
p: Okay. I think I see what you are getting at.
s: Good. Let’s try again. See this photo? What Is Happening?
p: Light is reflecting off of a photo in your hand. Some of it is entering my pupils and striking my retinas, sending signals up my optical nerves to my brain, which creates a disturbing mental image of you wearing a mankini and stroking a llama.
s: Ah. A scientific explanation. First, that’s my mate, Phil in the llama suit. I had a beige leotard on under the mankini, so relax. It was a fancy dress party. Outrageous! Second, I love science. Can’t get enough of it. But the scientific answer gets updated. Newton updated the theory of light. Maxwell updated that. Quantum mechanics updated that. What description would have been accurate in any of those eras, would survive science’s future advances, and would be accurate whether or not you were dreaming?
p: I am seeing an image of you stroking a man in a llama suit.
s: Better! Now, can there be any doubt you are seeing it?
p: Well, I’m not smelling it, am I? Thank God.
s: What if you were in a terrible car crash a year ago? What if the doctors could only save your brain and keep it alive in a vat? What if they could stimulate the visual cortex with electrodes to produce images of me in a mankini?
p: Then I’d say science got its priorities terribly wrong at some point.
s: What description would be accurate in that scenario and all the others we’ve mentioned?
p: I have an image of you in a mankini, stroking a man in a llama suit.
s: Better. Better! But, you have it? What, are you inert? Like a bowl?
p: I am experiencing an image of you in a mankini, stroking a man in a llama suit!
s: Even better! But does the image, in itself, convey that it is me stroking a man in a llama suit?
p: Is this ever going to end? Okay. I am experiencing an image of you holding an image. I am also experiencing a belief that the image you hold is of you stroking a man in a llama suit.
s: Super! Terrific! Laser surgery standard. What was different about that final description?
p: I only appealed to my direct, mental experience.
s: That’s right. All of your older descriptions might have been accurate, but you can’t be sure they were. That last one, you could know. It was only imperfect in that you had to use words to render it for me. But now, it’s just a memory that may or may not be accurate. You see. What Is Happening is your complete, instantaneous, experience. Nothing more and nothing less. Shall we look at it more closely?
p: Closer than we already have? Are you kidding? Can we move on from the mankini?
s: You’ve sharpened your attention, but you’ve narrowed your focus to do it. Let’s see if we can maintain the attention but with a broad, open awareness. Are you up for it?
p: Let’s go.
s: Okay. Close your eyes.
p: Please promise me you won’t take off your clothes.
s: Of course I won’t! Please!
For the next few minutes, don’t reply by speaking. Just think to yourself.
Do you notice the sound of my voice? Its pitch? Its volume? What other sounds are you aware of, now—between the words or beside them?
Do you sense the pressure of your bottom on the seat? Of your feet on the floor? The feeling of your clothes against your skin? Of the air on your face? What other touch are you aware of?
Do you notice any tastes? Does the breath moving through your mouth have a taste?
Are you experiencing any smells? From your bath or your meal? What other smells are you aware of?
Now open your eyes. Experience the surrounding light. The array of colors. The shadows. Do you notice my image? Images of other objects? Which images are clear and which blurred? Do the images change, move? What other sights are you aware of?
Eyes closed again, notice the position of your arms, neck and head. Which muscles are taut and which relaxed? Do you feel warm or cool? Hungry?
Is there any sense of fear, comfort, impatience, or peace? Feelings of love or anger?
Do you notice thoughts? A succession, each arises and dissolves as the next replaces it. Memories. Anticipations. Questions. Decisions. Are you aware of a sense of will?
All these components of experience—these phenomena—in ever-changing, varied combinations, make up What Is Happening in every second of life.
How was that?
p: Wild! In a way, I know all that is always going on, but it has never struck me so clearly.
s: See how comprehensive, how complete, What Is Happening is? How everything—including any thoughts or feelings of approval or dissatisfaction with What Is Happening, any wishes it were different—is an aspect of What Is Happening, within experience itself?
p: A lot of it is thought, especially if you include memories, anticipations and judgments. I guess a lot is emotions as well.
s: Your experience can be conceptually broken into sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, thoughts and sensations (where sensations include emotions and other bodily sensations). But do you realize that all those categories are just concepts? Do you experience things in those separate categories?
p: I guess not. It’s all just one big multimedia wave, isn’t it?
s: That’s right. There are no boundaries within your experience. Those categories, when they occur to you, are just thoughts. We’ll talk more about boundaries next week, and about where you fit into all this.
p: Where I fit in? I’m right here!
s: Perhaps. Let’s see next week. Until then! Mind your step.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.