Humour, Dancing and Dying

Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity the only test of humour. For a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious; and a jest which will not bear a serious examination is certainly false wit.’ Leontinus

For a brief time ago our lives contained some serious absurdities. Personal growth boom of the 1980’s and early 90’s dragged some of us from badly lit consulting rooms into nude marathon encounter groups and a whole host of other diverting forms of therapy by the sunny sides of swimming pools. We were living in the damp towns. They were part orgy (though we never saw much of that) and part journey into inner space. Even those fleeting adventures ware laced with old-fashioned, inverted Puritanism. Any incidental enjoyment was drowned in a compulsion to be spontaneous and insightful, “come on. Be more spontaneous!” Nowadays, regretfully, we have sunk into a quagmire of self-importance, verging on pomposity.

I much prefer gallows humour, once so common in mental hospitals and other grim institutions. It has an intense vigour. Many years ago I talked with a young social work student at the time at St Luke’s Hospital, in Huddersfield West Yorkshire. She complained about various hospital professionals, including me. “You don’t take the work seriously. You don’t recognise their pain and suffering. I asked her to explain. “You are always laughing and making jokes”. I pointed out the distinction earnest and serious but it was a waste of time. Despite her accusations, we took the work very seriously but we also knew we were living close to farce. She was involved in a sprint and ours was a marathon. The humour recognised the impossibility of our work. Daily we face profound human suffering and neglect in a place that was doing enormous damage to people – not just the patients but also the staff.

I’d like to see the late Ruth Picardie go ten rounds with my earnest student.

‘A few people, I think reckon that cripples can help them to get to heaven, including, my born-again former school teach who this week sent me a book of true-life stories of Christians who have experienced tragedy of one sort or another… all of them have found hope in their suffering through knowing God, who suffered first. In an accompanying letter, she urged me to allow the peace of God into my heart at this difficult time. To her, I say, sorry Miss, but I was the one who carved ‘666’ on the desks, I’m still half-Jewish (sadly the wrong half) and no death-bed conversion looms, despite the scary grim reaper ad.’  Picardie 1994

One major discovery after twenty years was that client’s ability to get into trouble always exceeds the facility of professionals to rescue them. Of course they’re really supposed to rescue themselves, as in the story of the two Rogerian therapists. The two wise men were standing by a large pond discussing the finer points on non-intervention. They observed in the distance a woman struggling in deep water. She seemed to be in trouble and there was fierce struggle, her arms waving for a few moments until all was silent in the mixture of water and weed. After several moments of contemplation one therapist commented: “What a shame she didn’t cry out for help”. 

Some jokes reveal a serious side to our human nature. Chogyam Trungpa, a late great Tibetan lama, writes directly about seeing through the great joke:

‘So a sense of humour is not merely a matter of trying to tell jokes or make puns, trying to be funny in a deliberate fashion. It involves seeing the basic irony to the juxtaposition of extremes, so that one is not caught taking them seriously, so that one does take seriously their game of hope and fear. This is why the experience of the spiritual path is so significant, why the practice of meditation is the most insignificant experience of all. It is insignificant because you place no value judgement on it. Once you are absorbed into the insignificant situation of openness without involvement in value judgement, then you begin to see all the games going on around you. Someone is trying to be stern and spiritually solemn, trying to be a good person. Such a person might take it seriously if someone offended him, might want to fight. If you work in accordance with the basic insignificance of what is, then you begin to see the humour in this kind of solemnity, in people making such a big deal about things ‘. Trungpa 1969

Trungpa points to the essential pomposity and absurdity of our professions. Every profession has a vibrant version of the policeman’s imagined thin blue line. I never visited or worked with any organisations for the mentally ill, learning disabled or homeless that didn’t believe it tool in and cared for people ‘nobody else would touch’. Most of us have to believe in our singular importance; that we stand as warriors, the last line of defence against the overwhelming forces.

Some of us earn a reasonable living by charging distressed people folding money for simply talking to us. We mostly listen and they mostly talk about loneliness, despair, having little intimacy, not being understood by ‘significant’ others. Our heads nod gently and mouths go “hmmm” and “hmmm”. I’ll never forget one of my early experiences in counselling, the counsellor nodded off during one session. I went on babbling on regardless. I can laugh about it now…

Several years later in the Manjushri Buddhist centre in the Lake District I was doing a long period of silence. I sat in their beautiful grounds with card round my neck: ‘Lee is doing a period of silence’. Several people I’d previously counselled came to talk. It was relaxing just to listen and not to think of something wise to say. One told me afterwards, in a rather back-handed compliment, that it was the best session she’d ever had.

We’re all pioneers  of a sort – rough frontiersman and women. The so-called helping professions are at the beginning of an exciting journey, that attempts to explore and enlarge human awareness and establish new disciplines echoing some of the experiences of the sixteenth-century physics – the age of Alchemy. Like then we are attempting to transform base metals into gold. There is that sense of arrant nonsense and profound wisdom jostling side by side – often very difficult to tell which is which.

Mostly though the picture is of isolated and earnest therapists and other helpers, silently inventing overcomplicated theories, facing distressed clients and both agonising eternally. It is rather more like chess than dance. Vicarious suffering meets individual pain – the fixed grimace rather than the spontaneous smile. The mouth may smile but the eyes rarely. Professional, some of whom had a traumatic time in training, like I did, with a sodding miserable Western European teacher, seek unconsciously to wreak some kind of vengeance in turn on their own students. And so the negative Karma continues.     

I suspect that Psychotherapist are rarely writers, poets or musicians, with the ability to capture the butterfly wing quality of dynamic encounters with people, My experience in meeting with distressed people owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud for that matter. I suspect that therapy sessions with large helpings of frothy bubbles and joy are considerably more typical than the po-faced and respectably accounts common in books. Of course there is considerable suffering but many sessions are punctuated with jokes and laughter. At least I would hope.

Some years ago I visited a bright young lady at her home. She had a learning disability, was cancer-riddles, had about two weeks to live and was just about to enter the local hospice. Her mother, a devout Roman Catholic, was painfully angry. She was especially furious that her daughter has summoned for me to be with her in the final days. I was adding to the already immense problems. The atmosphere was deeply fraught.

Lying quietly upstairs in her bedroom, the daughter asked weakly, ‘I would really like to learn to relax. Can you teach me? I replied smiling “Aren’t you cutting it a bit fine?” The acute tension was suddenly released. We both collapsed and laughed and took several minutes to recover. She was the best student (and teacher) I ever had. Her concentration was completely undivided and she died peacefully a few days later.

Humour and laughter aren’t chocolate and whipped cream in therapy but the genuine bread and butter, milk and apples. They aren’t optional luxuries only to be indulged in several hours later of bawling your eyes out. Laughter doesn’t have to be painfully earned.  It comes free. It comes bubbling up like a warm spring. Humour is the core. It’s the yeast that gives life to important processes by which we expand our awareness of ten thousand different realities.  – all inconsistent with one another, but it doesn’t matter.   Through humour, we toss life in the air lightly like a pancake and flip it un-neatly over, eventually becoming the pancake ourselves.

Humour can help free us from many fixed illusions. It shakes our attachment to the ego. We don’t know whether we are Chou or the butterfly, or even if it matters.

Once I dreamt that I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there; in all ways a butterfly. I enjoyed my freedom as a butterfly, not knowing that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was surprised to be myself again. Now, how can I tell whether I am a man who dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly who dreams that he is a man?

I believe there is no answer for that, but in any case we must remember that the ‘Toa Te Ching’ of Lao-tzu (who almost certainly never existed) and the utterances of Chuang Tzu are not to be taken too seriously for the sake of you spiritual health. You can hear these ancient Chinese masters laughing on almost every line. Watts puts it uncharacteristically soberly: ‘It must be understood, in passing, that both Lao-tzu and Chuang Tzu enjoy the humour or overstating their case – the latter sometimes choosing truly preposterous examples to illustrate the point.’

Humour provides an immensely earthy challenge to established realities and psychological concepts. Somehow, in the same moment we can be both in the clouds and standing firmly on the earth. Life is never as we imagined or expect it to be. In a single moment we are surrounded by immense high stone walls topped by electrified barbed wire of human suffering. There seems no escape possible, only dreary life imprisonment. In the same moment the walls and wires fall down in a large pile of rubble, turning into a giant duck, topped by a face that looks exactly like our own.

A good friend came to see me the other day. She is a painfully thin woman with Anorexia Nervosa, highly anxious and her appearance was accompanied by an agitated gait or shuffled from years anti-psychotic medications. She said nothing for a long moment between us. “You seem quiet?” I said. Then as if out of nowhere she said  “Apparently the Sioux (Native Americans) when under stress because of the declining buffalo herds, become collectively and electively mute during the last Century.”

I wasn’t prepared for this and didn’t know how to use this genuine nugget of information. I think it sat with me like a small confused piece of jigsaw in a great puzzle that was beyond us both.  My immediate response was a considerable mixture of helplessness and love. I looked a genuine fool with an impressive array of felt-pens of various colours and several large notepads, like a timekeeper at the Olympics, much too late for the race. I asked her to draw picture of this and she took the pens from me and began to draw the most amazing array of sketches depicting ancient herding buffalos. Then she stopped and waited silently, sitting sideways to avoid my gaze.

 “Have you talked to someone about this before, your muteness?” I asked her. She replied slowly but in a clear voice “No, nobody wanted to listen”, her slow and scratchy voice ran round and round my empty head. I just wanted to give her a hug. Instead I said nothing, my detailed and intimate knowledge of the Sioux was rendered useless at a stroke. As I looked at these drawings I was flooded in an overwhelming feeling of humility. Great! She’s cracked it. She’s identified herself with the Sioux Indian’s because they lost their voice when they lost their herd. She’s drawn them back into existence, in her own vision and in doing so, found a voice. We talked and laughed together from that point onwards.

The thing is that in the west Psychotherapeutic ideologies they discourage dancing barefoot in the long wet grass. How can you dance with the term ‘ongoing Dyadic relationships’. This language doesn’t smell right. This and other terms like ‘cathartic’ and ‘transference’ are the purgatives elixirs of human growth. The taste is so dreadful it must be doing us some good. There the language used is classy nonsense. The language is of the supermarket. Mearns and Thorne use such phrases such as “to open myself to myself” and “to trust the feeling of inter-relatedness” , the use of crude tools applied to the ‘client’  and “my spiritual experience is to ‘capitalised’ on, all sounds unlike the music of spirituality but of inflating egos.

Nothing in genuine spirituality prepares the students for hammers and spanners. Are we running away from our own shadows because we can’t think of anything else? Or is it just fear? Surely we realise this strategy can’t succeed. Are we simply searching over in the light because we’re told to do so and it’s where everyone else is looking? “I know it’s over there because that’s where everyone is.” Are we afraid to stick out in the crowd, to take up unpopular causes? Are we condemned eternally to search uselessly amongst crowds, rather than where the key, or Buffalo, was lost in the certain knowledge we’ll never find it?  

Growth can take place can take place anywhere and everywhere depending on our attitude and skills, and yet we still associate growth with pain. Somehow we’ve learnt to trust suffering with meaning and mistrust both laughter and joy. If someone is crying in deep sorrow, they are obviously facing harsh realities, because they are having a bad time. Must realities be so harsh? If we are relaxing, laughing enjoying ourselves, we are obviously escaping something deep and painful. But why? If laughter can be an escape from difficult and unpleasant realities, then so can crying and pain. Are misery and mania so different? I see more people running away from in tears than running away in laughter. What prevents jokes and joy from being a floral gateway into new perceptions and less that tears and pain?

When we lose sight of the far horizon, we can also lose our sense of humour, or proportion of things. We lose our ability to roll over and over, seeing the world and ourselves from many different and disturbing angles. We can no longer see the cosmic joke. The joyous mystery had fled and only oceans of self-pity remain. The sparkle and lightness have disappeared. We take ourselves all too seriously, too earnestly, much of the time.

I recall distinctively my own years of depression where every morning seemed grey, even when the sun shone brightly. I found it difficult to appreciate anything or anybody – the flowers in the garden, the taste of an orange, the love and nourishment of a partner. For me every slight movement was an effort. I nearly drown in misery. I couldn’t make any sense of how or why other people found ordinary life so enjoyable. What did they find to enjoy? I’d ask myself. I was envious, puzzled and often furious. I couldn’t begin to see the wonderful and changing world as they saw it and felt it to be. Instead I was full of enormous rage about life. Life has failed to deliver what I’d expected. I had, without intention, built a grim prison inside myself. 

Without humour, ordinary humour, our mind loses capacity to move in a thousand different directions, to laugh at its own weakness and stupidities. We call that process negative and destructive self talk or thought patterned – becoming depressed. We are pressed down in a hundred different ways. One major indication that oppression lies in dragging ourselves heavily through life, hardly able to hold the mind together form one moment to the next. Getting through each day requires supreme effort.  Yesterday, last week or month or year, we walked the high tightrope of ordinary life without even realising the difficulties. We didn’t give it a second thought and could fall to the ground at any moment.

Humour invokes that gossamer subtly of shifting through different realities without making judgement of what is more or less real. Shakespeare said: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ The tufts of that flexibility of mind float lightly on the breeze. Weighed down with self-conscious, heavy fears and ideas, we cannot fly at all. We are blinkered with only the most restricted view, though a commonly held one.  Our minds become chronically conditioned. Suddenly, through a flash of humour, the world can turn on its axis and we see everything from a startling new and wider angle. What we’d thought was everything is now only a tiny splinter of the expanding universe.  

Trungpa again links this suffocating process with ‘Big Me’ – ‘having to be good, having to behave myself’. This kind of moral straitjacket is a black parrot that sits on my shoulder screening out my failings and shortfalls. At all cost I have to ‘do it right’, whatever that might mean. The spiritual pathway can easily be a souped up exercise in ‘doing it right’ to the power of ten, not a genuine search for truth but a hollow acting and posturing. Humour sees directly beyond that crude duality, observing both situational poles as they really are.

I wonder if most of us can identify with the great struggle with the ‘Big Me’. Maybe we have become firmly attached to particular image of ourselves, so we sell people attractively packaged icons – reflecting how we wish to be seen, cunningly concealing the inconsistencies and brutalities. There is a sophisticated social game in which the talker and the listen collude. ‘I’m not like that. I’m really like this…. I’m not untidy; I’m really tidy and neat. I’m not aggressive…’

When we misconstrue the mask as ourselves we become deluded as to who are. Until we learn to slip out of that carefully packaged identity. We learn to comment internally: ‘That wasn’t really me, I don’t know what came over me…’ But sadly a lot of people go on to painful lengths to develop more elaborate mirages, to deceive people rather than simply be as we are, whatever type of chaos that might mean. In playing these social games over many years, we can acquire lots of adoration, lots of friends and yet we lose intimacy with ourselves.  We begin to believe in our own press releases, but no matter how chic we try to appear to world we have still yet to gain intimacy real with ourselves.   

Oh for the joy of throwing over the social straitjackets and begin dancing barefoot in the wet.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, wrote:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also in touch with the wonders of life. They are within and all around us, everywhere, anytime. (Hanh 1982)

Pleasure and pain come equally to us. One day it rains; the next day it shines. We have to avoid getting hooked on rain (or pain), sun or pleasure. Whatever comes can be equal to us, is important for our life-long learning. To become a part of the planet’s wonders, both inside and out, we need to learn to dance and play like little children. ‘Ring – a- ring a roses, we all fall down.’ We need to recognise our fragility, to value our inconsistencies, to live daily with our mysteries. We learn to wheel and whirl, everything from the foxtrot to rock and roll to the cha cha, but particularly to relearn the dance from our birth. That means really hearing the natural music – the Nada – of our life and moving in harmony with. Our bodies sway subtly like leaves in the autumn wind – spiritual Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, wheeling and whirling away into nothing.

So many people who came through my door for assistance of one kind or another, had never learn to play. They didn’t know how o magic a vast and ever-changing universe from a few wooden bricks and a tin of soup bubbles, or to conjure up a rail network  from a row of old shoe boxes. They didn’t know how to move in subtle circles or hold hands in fairy rings, or receive a foot massage, or spend days to fantasy rabbits. They only knew how to be responsible, how to make money, how to sit on committee; most of all, how to be what others thought they ought to be. Perhaps they’d dream as small children flying kites over the Andes, but now they were qualified accountants, social workers or estate agents, and suppose to behave themselves.

Real and creative playing is essential for spiritual growth; in fun, throwing ourselves into the flow of life; of flexibility in thought and movement. We can forget ourselves completely in the absorption of the moment. We learn to move in a myriad of way and simply create, For many even leisure has become just another way of achieving yet more, of destroying ourselves. I talked recently to a businessman whose golf game had become as stressful as his work. He worried about his swing and lowering his handicap. He strove tensely to become more competitive, then took regular lessons to become less and less tense because it ruined his swing. Far from being a way of relaxing, he has made the game yet another handicap.

The unexpected worries and disturbs our ego. Why? Maybe because our egos like to be the fount of all wisdom, a know-it-all like the Delphic oracle. It manufactures its own distinctive version of the world – a virtual reality.  It likes to know what is coming next. We haven’t grasped or understood what the Chinese Mandarin means in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness:  ‘A planned life can be endured, but no lived’.

There can even be playing, or dancing, in our dying. We must die – all creatures do, but this relationship with ourselves in the same. Dancing in living and dancing in dying. At the moment of death we can dance the whole of nature, to forget who we are. What stops us from dancing is fear – fear from the unknown, we might fear looking stupid, fear of trivial secrets, fear of pain, fear of losing contact with other who meant  so much to us. Saying goodbye? But who or what is dying? What else is there left to do – to dance and then to die?

We return and conclude with Trungpa who recalls a wonderful story:

There is a story of a person who died laughing. He was a simple man village person who asked a teacher the colour of Amitabha (Buddha of Compassion) that traditionally in iconographical terms, is red. Somehow, by mistake, the thought the teacher had said the Amitabha’s colour was the colour of ash is a fire. And this influenced his whole lifelong meditation practice; because when he practised visualising Amitabha, it was a grey Amitabha. Finally he lay dying and wanted to be completely sure, so he asked another teacher the colour of Amitabha. The teacher said that Amitabha colour was red and the man suddenly burst into laughter: ‘Well, I used to think him the colour ash, and now you tell me he is red’. He burst into laughter and died laughing. Trungpa 1987

What an absolutely marvellous way to die! Most of his earthly life spent meditating on totally the wrong colour of Amitabha. It turned out to be red rather than the colour of ash. If he ever reached Nirvana, would he ever be forgiven for his inaccurate iconography? Could Amitabha got over the affront to his colour? So what the hell! Fortunately he realised at the very moment of death the ultimate absurdity of it all. From ash colour to ashes. Or as Blyth once observed: ‘All beauty, all music, all religions, all poetry is a dance of the mind. Without this dancing of the spirit there is no true Zen.’


Blyth, R.H. (1960) Zen in English Literature London. Dutton.

Chuan-Yaun, Chang (1975) Creativity and Taoism. New York. Wildwood House

Hanh Thich, Nhat (1982) Peing Peace London. Rider.

Picardie, R (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin

Trungpa, Choygam (1969) Meditation in Action. London. Stuart and Watkins.

Trungpa, Choygam (1987) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Boston. Shambala.

Dedicated to Janet, a survivor of the Cambridge mental health system and to Serife a wonderful dancer in life who came to death with a couragous and open spirit, for whose kindness and patience I am indebted.

Kingfisher Dreamings

Bare willow strands
flick the slow moving river
and in the cool breeze
darts the halcyon
neon blue with flash of red
low over muddied waters,
seeking no great mystery
only fish

Sleepy Tigers

Sleepy tigers
on my sparse haired chest;
sum total
of my happiness

Many years ago I overheard an old Indian story about a monk – or was it monkey – not sure, anyway he was being chased by a tiger, so he thinks he’s going to outwit the tiger, dashes up a tree thinking he is safe there. But the tiger laughs and climbs up too and is inching towards the poor soul shaking on the branch. The monk – or monkey – is just about to devoured by the hungry tiger when he notices a small cherry, he quickly realises his predicament with the tiger is hopeless, so picks the cherry, he vows to taste that cherry with every morsel of his body, with every ounce of his life, all resistance is gone and doing so he discovers his life is complete by THIS cherry… arhhhhh! He fully awakens.


I’ve come back once again to Wu-Wei. Wu-Wei is defined (in philosophical Taoism) as action accomplishing its purpose in accordance with the natures of things and events. There are other more esoteric definitions but I will use this one as it relates to my experience, or rather brush stroke, with Wu-Wei that was expressed in a previous post The Art of Patience (6th March, 2014).

I contemplated Wu-Wei from the perspective of the Chinese painter’s and the ‘open way’, to express ‘the natures of things and events’. I focused on one painting – unnamed – that reflected a moon on water. I recalled how standing before it, it held me, the observer, in sparkling peacefulness: a state of surrender to the innate emptiness of oneself that is difficult, if not impossible, to define (even with calligraphy).

I’ve come to realise that for many years my search for ‘self’ was in fact a disguised search for Wu-Wei. I just hadn’t realised it. And without knowing I would look for depictions of Wu-Wei elsewhere in literature, poetry and musical notation. In short Wu-Wei, consciously acknowledged, has become a quest for ‘direct seeing’ of oneself – the nature of things and events.

And this still ripples and resonates within me in different moments; typing on a keyboard, driving the car, listening to birdsong, making cups of tea, playing chess, meditation, the ripples continue on and on. An example of this comes from a piece by J. Krishnamurti. His volume of works relate to a view that learning from experience is of deepest value once we know, and come to terms with, the conditioned mind (something those Wu-Wei masters knew all about).

There is an opening narrative that introduces Distraction (Series I Chapter 82) which expresses Krishnamurti’s poetic spirit, something that I find in-between his words, in a way similar to those simple ink brush strokes. Here, I believe, Krishnamurti is pointing to the same moon.


It was a long, wide canal, leading from the river into lands that had no water. The canal was higher than the river, and the water which entered it was controlled by a system of locks. It was peaceful along that canal; heavy-laden barges moved up and down it, and their white triangular sails stood out against the blue sky and the dark palms. It was a lovely evening, calm and free, and the water was very still.

The reflections of the palms and of the mango trees were so sharp and clear that it was confusing to distinguish the actual from the reflection. The setting sun made the water transparent, and the glow of evening was on its face. The evening star was beginning to show among the reflections. The water was without a movement, and the few passing villagers, who generally talked so loud and long, were silent.

Even the whisper among the leaves had stopped. From the meadow came some animal; it drank, and disappeared as silently as it had come. Silence held the land, it seemed to cover everything.

Noise ends, but silence is penetrating and without end. One can shut oneself off from noise, but there is no enclosure against silence; no wall can shut it out, there is no resistance against it. Noise shuts all things out, it is excluding and isolating; silence includes all things within itself.

Silence, like love, is indivisible; it has no division of noise and silence. The mind cannot follow it or be made still to receive it. The mind that is made still can only reflect its own images, and they are sharp and clear, noisy in their exclusion.

A mind that is made still can only resist, and all resistance is agitation. The mind that is still and not made still is ever experiencing silence; the thought, the word, is then within the silence, and not outside of it. It is strange how, in this silence, the mind is tranquil, with a tranquillity that is not formed.

As tranquillity is not marketable, has no value, and is not usable, it has a quality of the pure, of the alone. That which can be used is soon worn out. Tranquillity does not begin or end, and a mind thus tranquil is aware of a bliss that is not the reflection of its own desire.

She said she had always been agitated by something or other; if it was not the family, it was the neighbour or some social activity. Agitation had filled her life, and she had never been able to find the reason for these constant upheavals. She was not particularly happy; and how could one be with the world as it was? She had had her share of passing happiness, but all that was in the past and now she was hunting for something that would give a meaning to life. She had been through many things which at the time seemed worth while, but which afterwards faded into nothingness.

She had been engaged in many social activities of the serious kind; she had ardently believed in the things of religion, had suffered because of death in her family, and had faced a major operation. Life had not been easy with her, she added, and there were millions of others in the world like herself. She wanted to go beyond all this business, whether foolish or necessary and find something that was really worth while.

The things that are worth while are not to be found. They cannot be bought, they must happen; and the happening cannot be cunningly planned. Is it not true that anything that has deep significance always happens, it is never brought about?

The happening is important, not the finding. The finding is comparatively easy, but the happening is quite another matter. Not that it is difficult; but the urge to seek, to find, must wholly stop for the happening to take place. Finding implies losing; you must have in order to lose. To possess or be possessed is never to be free to understand.

But why has there always been this agitation, this restlessness? Have you seriously inquired into it before?

“I have attempted it half-heartedly, but never purposely. I have always been distracted.”

Not distracted, if one may point out; it is simply that this has never been a vital problem to you. When there is a vital problem, then there is no distraction.

Distraction does not exist; distraction implies a central interest from which the mind wanders; but if there is a central interest, there is no distraction. The mind’s wandering from one thing to another is not distraction, it is an avoidance of what is. We like to wander far away because the problem is very close. The wandering gives us something to do, like worry and gossip; and though the wandering is often painful, we prefer it to what is.

Do you seriously wish to go into all this, or are you merely playing around with it?

“I really want to go through to the very end of it. That is why I have come.”

You are unhappy because there is no spring that keeps the well full, is that it? You may once have heard the whisper of water on the pebbles, but now the riverbed is dry. You have known happiness, but it has always receded, it is always a thing of the past. Is that spring the thing you are groping after? And can you seek it, or must you come upon it unexpectedly?

If you knew where it was, you would find means to get to it; but not knowing, there is no path to it. To know it is to prevent the happening of it. Is that one of the problems?

“That definitely is. Life is so dull and uncreative, and if that thing could happen one wouldn’t ask for anything more.”

Is loneliness a problem?

“I don’t mind being lonely, I know how to deal with it. I either go out for a walk, or sit quietly with it till it goes. Besides, I like being alone.”

We all know what it is to be lonely: an aching, fearsome emptiness that cannot be appeased. We also know how to run away from it, for we have all explored the many avenues of escape. Some are caught in one particular avenue, and others keep on exploring; but neither are in direct relationship with what is.

You say you know how to deal with loneliness. If one may point out, this very action upon loneliness is your way of avoiding it. You go out for a walk, or sit with loneliness till it goes. You are always operating upon it, you do not allow it to tell its story. You want to dominate it, to get over it, to run away from it; so your relationship with it is that of fear.

Is fulfilment also a problem? To fulfil oneself in something implies the avoidance of what one is, does it not? I am puny; but if I identify myself with the country, with the family, or with some belief, I feel fulfilled, complete.

This search for completeness is the avoidance of what is.

“Yes, that is so; that is also my problem.”

If we can understand what is, then perhaps all these problems will cease. Our approach to any problem is to avoid it; we want to do something about it. The doing prevents our being in direct relationship with it, and this approach blocks the understanding of the problem.

The mind is occupied with finding a way to deal with the problem, which is really an avoidance of it; and so the problem is never understood, it is still there. For the problem, the what is, to unfold and tell its story fully, the mind must be sensitive, quick to follow.

If we anaesthetize the mind through escapes, through knowing how to deal with the problem, or through seeking an explanation or a cause for it, which is only a verbal conclusion, then the mind is made dull and cannot swiftly follow the story which the problem, the what is, is unfolding. See the truth of this and the mind is sensitive; and only then can it receive.

Any activity of the mind with regard to the problem only makes it dull and so incapable of following, of listening to the problem. When the mind is sensitive – not made sensitive, which is only another way of making it dull – then the what is, the emptiness, has a wholly different significance.

Please be experiencing as we go along, do not remain on the verbal level. What is the relationship of the mind to what is? So far, the what is has been given a name, a term, a symbol of association, and this naming prevents direct relationship, which makes the mind dull, insensitive. The mind and what is are not two separate processes, but naming separates them. When this naming ceases, there is a direct relationship: the mind and the what is are one.

The what is is now the observer himself without a term, and only then is the what is transformed; it is no longer the thing called emptiness with its associations of fear, and so on. Then the mind is only the state of experiencing, in which the experiencer and the experienced are not. Then there is immeasurable depth, for he who measures is gone.

That which is deep is silent, tranquil, and in this tranquillity is the spring of the inexhaustible. The agitation of the mind is the usage of word. When the word is not, the measureless is.

J. Krishnamurti Commentaries on
Living Series I Chapter 82

The Art of Patience

During a recent visit to Budapest I came across a gallery of Chinese ink paintings called The Spirit of Mountains, the Fragrance of Flowers. The gallery at Kogart House features some of the most exquisite ink drawings from the 19th and 20th century I’ve ever seen. It provided a great resting point along my walk to the main city park. Having decided to only rest here, I didn’t expect to be captivated. But the calligraphy, brush strokes and minimalist watercolours I became transfixed in a state of quite joy and sparkling peace.

My attempts to walk away only preceded a gentle inward nudge to go around again. It occurred to me I wasn’t “looking”, or “seeing” anything but was actually bathing in the gallery. I was caught up, soaking up a certain light. Not seeking – not knowing, just bathing. One silk painting soaked me the most, it was called ‘Returning Home by the Full Light of the Moon’. The artist was unknown, but it took centre stage of my awareness. Before me radiated a golden moon with broad single black ink brush strokes sweeping across the lower half of the canvass. I recognised it was the moons reflection on the water, and a reflection of the water-course way rooted in the present, the now, that is found in the philosophy of Ch’an.

Likewise this painting shone down, in directness, nakedness, then gradually the moon and water immersed into my senses a sweet blissfulness arose. I stepped back from the piece and saw something else, a spirit that I had no words to describe, though I started clutching for some. I walked out and continued on my walked, trying to resist labelling the awareness I had in there, in front of this painting. But none the less it doggedly pursued me for the rest of the day. What was this awareness? Emptiness? Nothingness? or Mu as it is known in the Buddhist tradition?

I was exhausted from the walk, and from the emotional energy and after thought. What was this experience? This bathing in the light of this ink painting? I recalled a word or phrase Wu-Wei from early translated chinese books I studied on Confusianism, Taoism and Buddhism, Wu-Wei kept cropping up and I didn’t know what it meant. Descriptions I had read didn’t make a lot of sense. Phrases like non-doing in action, action without attachment and so on. These books didn’t reveal much. Or rather, my way of reading what was said did not reveal much. Once I asked my Tai-chi instructor once and he just kept on moving, one form to the next. I mistook his lack of verbal reply as disinterest, I didn’t see that he was showing me Wu-Wei in his actions.

I visualised the painting again in my mind’s eye. What is this Wu-Wei about and why is it holding me there? Is Wu-Wei looking at the image or painter? Is it a style of painting? Is it a conveyance of our essential nature?…. what is it? Then it slowly struck me, its none of these phenomena and yet it is all of these phenomena. Non-doing in action is both painter and painting, and from the point of view of the gallery, it is simultaneously the observer and the observed. Non-doing in action is not design, it is not planning, not aiming, nor is it intent or intention. It is beyond the artist and the art that is produced. Wu-Wei is the quality of patience itself required to bring the painting into existence. This patience, waiting with no intent, no expectation, just allowing the moment to unfold and to follow this moment one brush stroke at a time.

Questions then ran deeper, is the practice of Wu Wei in art the same as the practice of meditation and love? Does the practitioner need patience as an essential quality to be productive, intuitive, loving? Without patience, what can we do? What can we achieve, what can know? I’m gently reminded here of a story of the Buddha, when asked by a follower what is Buddha nature, what is enlightenment?” he simply smiled and held a flower up in between his fingers. He was demonstrating Wu Wei. The flower blossoms when the time is right, when the conditions for fruition, or opening up, are ripe.

And this teaching of patience corresponds directly to my own experience. I realised how recently I have lacked patience. Every time I lose patience, I lose Wu-Wei. Without Wu-Wei my relationship to myself, my children and other family and friends is impaired and creates disharmony and thus more impatience. Losing patience in ourselves and others we miss seeing the brush strokes on the canvas, the spirit of mountains, the fragrance of flowers. Instead we could be returning home by the full light of the moon.

On Humility

If we want to answer the question, how tall can the human species grow, then obviously it is well to pick out the ones who are already tallest and study them. If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is of no use to average out the speed of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners and see how well they can do. If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people. (Abraham Maslow)

I know that I am no saint, I am human. I try to accord my life with certain values; openness, tolerance and compassion. I try to live by simple ethical considerations to each and every situation, for example the principle that it is better to do no harm, than it is harming others by doing “good”. I know that I haven’t always succeeded, and I have lost count of the times I’ve failed. My contribution to human happiness is a drop in the ocean, but never-the-less it is there.

Perhaps being human is to understand humility with dignity and hope as Mei Rozavian Wenyi reminds us

I’m glad my life isn’t perfect,
I’m proud that I make mistakes,
I’m happy I have my problems in life…
It reminds me I’m real,
I’m human… I’m me.

Used with kind permission

Doris Lessing Remembered

It was a rainy autumnal afternoon in Cambridge, and I was dwindling in a bookshop, browsing humanist psychology for my degree. I hadn’t found what I was looking for so I decided to leave and was approaching the front door when I overheard a gentle voice in the corner of the lobby. I turned to spy a small gathering of men and women around a signing of a new edition of The Golden Notebook. I drew closer and listened attentively to Doris talking. As I drew a little closer still I caught the words “the new man isn’t afraid to listen to us, he isn’t threatened by Feminism, he may even one day join us…” Let’s say I was warming to Doris at this point.

I later discovered that Lessing had also been influenced by Sufi mysticism, which had been introduced to her in childhood by the renowned teacher Idries Shah. Both Feminism and Sufism underpinned her belief in equality between the sexes and promoted better than any one else I know the dialogue of the committed relationship. Long before the generation of Women from Venus, Men from Mars, Lessing converted me.

Many years later, and a few brief email exchanges I’m still learning, I’m still working towards the great leap forward in every man, every woman.

Farewell Doris, and thank you.