What Is This?

I’ve just got back from my six-monthly, week long, Zen Buddhist retreat at Crosby Hall, in west Lancashire. As always with the autumn retreat, I have come home with a cold. Forty people sitting together for eight hours a day is not conducive to infection control.

Maybe we should meditate in face masks? Then, we would look like rows of chimpanzees trying to come up with the plot line for Hamlet!

On the one hand, the physical and emotional process of every retreat is the same; on the other hand, every one is totally different. It could be no other way, really.

Crosby Hall

Crosby Hall

The first day is spent adjusting to the new regime – the early morning rise, the eight hours of meditation, the aches and pains that come from stillness but, at the same time, the sense of freedom that comes from a structure to the day that is designed to give the mind the openness of no-structure.

The second day is the difficult one, when the body begins to hurt and the mind starts to examine the things it doesn’t want to. You have to just get through this bit, and then the next few days are easy and enormously interesting, as the body adjusts and the mind explores new discoveries.

What does my mind do when I am meditating?

It doesn’t stop thinking, for a start. Trying to stop the mind from thinking is a little like trying to stop the heart beating. Thinking is what it does. I guess I’ll only stop thinking when I die!

At first, I just watch the thoughts as they come up, and then let them go away again. The trick is not to follow them, or grasp at them, and then they will start to slow down and lose their ability to seem real. They are, after all, only electrical discharges inside a skull.

Even if you are a genius, they are still only discharges in your skull.

At this point in a retreat, I find myself fixing and obsessing on a phrase or expression that my mind seems to have randomly chosen from the various things my teacher has said. One time, I pondered on Douglas Harding’s insistence on looking at the looker rather than at the seen. This time, it was Keizan’s question, What is this?

The beauty of this is its simplicity. I sat and asked myself What is this? SometimesI had my eyes open, and so was asking about all the world, the Thingness of Space; and sometimes I had my eyes shut, and so the question becomes What is this thing I call me? The Thingness of Me . . .

Then I started to flick my eyes open for just a snapshot of the world, and I found there was another question. What is this? And why does it have to have a name?

This is so simple and facile, you’re probably thinking, Why go to all that trouble and discomfort to find that out? It’s obvious.

But, I felt that was the point. It is obvious. It’s so obvious we’ve forgotten to notice it. We subscribe to the notion that the universe is a vast web of interconnected energy and flow, but we forget that this applies to our tiny chaotic lives as well. It applies to the wall you’re looking at.

Crosby Hall grounds

Crosby Hall grounds

This felt so important that I wanted to dance. I can’t dance conventionally, but I do a good hip-hop impression with my hands and face! It is how I physically express joy.

We all do the Dance together.


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A Whole New Ball Game

img_4087 img_4088I am sitting on a chrome bar stool in the kitchen. I am sitting near the breakfast bar, not at it, and I am not eating. I could just be looking, thoughtlessly, out of the window, where the sun is shining through the scented rose.

The rose, planted in memory of my mother, is having a second flush this autumn. The first major frost will waste her flowers, and she will be wind-blown, like crimson confetti.

The stool is set low, so my feet are on the floor either side, to act as my stabilisers.


Although I have multiple sclerosis, and have appalling, monocular vision, I am looking, to the public, uninformed, view, like a fairly ordinary old-ish man.

“Ordinary”, not “normal”. Ordinary is the best we can aspire to, while normal is the worst. Ordinary is an average, normal is the lowest common denominator.

Although I may look like I’m looking at the rose outside, I am, in fact looking at my wife, Elisabeth, at the other end of the kitchen, who holds a yellow tennis ball. She is going to throw it at me!

We have invented a game, and, like all games, the point of it, in an existential sense, is not at all obvious.

The rules of the game insist that the thrown ball must bounce before it is caught. More of a basketball pass, really.

This is an impossibility for me. I can only see the ball in tiny two-dimensional flickers, my hands don’t do what I tell them, and, if I move, I fall over. As a contest, it doesn’t have much going for it!

But, as we throw the ball to each other, over and over again, I’m getting better at it.

The low bar stool gives me the stability to reach for the ball without falling over, and I can feel my cote waking up. I sometimes catch the ball, as I lunge despairingly for the yellow flash. My success rate is improving. Not a lot, but improving nevertheless.

I think my assumption that I no longer had any hand-eye co-ordination was blocking the instinctive move, the wordless and thoughtless response to the flight of the ball. If you think about catching or hitting a ball, you can’t do it with freedom. The action becomes cramped.

This, now, is the Zen of Catching.


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Like a Black Crow Flying

The Wild Heart #2 The Corvids


Corvid is the ornithological name for Crow. The family consists of, in descending order of size, raven, chough, crow, rook, magpie and jackdaw. They are all essentially black with relatively powerful beaks. To describe the magpie as black, however, is to entirely miss the point – it is a strikingly handsome black and white.

They are all permanent residents in Britain, so you’ll be able to hear them during the winter. The chough and the raven are rather localised, though, so unless you live on the top of Snowdon (for the raven) or on the top of rugged sea cliffs (for the chough), you are unlikely to hear them.

They all sound like crows, though, but the differences are quite clear, and they live in different places and have different lifestyles.

The magpie has made a move into suburban gardens in the last twenty years, and has got a bad press because of its supposed predation on poor songbird eggs and babies. It’s true that they will prey on small birds and eggs, but they are not responsible for diminishing garden bird populations. Prey-predator relationships just don’t work like that. No predator will eat all its food supply. Nature is not as stupid as human beings.

There will always be more sparrows than sparrowhawks, there will always be more wildebeest than lions.

The magpie, like all crows, is very vocal. It has a harsh chatter, not very pleasant to listen to. It is not a sound that helps its public image. In no way can any of the crows be said to sing.!

The sound of the crow is usually described as a caw. It is fairly solitary, and feeds on worms and grubs out in open pasture. It calls when flying, and tends to make three caws, but will also caw once, twice, or four times. The bird will usually be answered by another one some distance away. They are strong, direct flyers, and are carrion feeders, often found on road-kill.

Rooks sound similar to crows, but they live in large groups and nest in large communities, called rookeries, in large deciduous trees. Their caws are slightly softer and longer, and the flock will be particularly vocal around dusk, as they settle down for the night.

Jackdaws are smaller, but they, too, are gregarious and talkative. The sound is a sharp chack(hence the name), and they call to each other while they are out feeding on grassland, or around their nesting places. They are birds of cliffs and quarries, and old ruins and rural churches, which latter must seem like cliffs to them.

All of the crow family are extremely intelligent. I have seen film of jackdaws in a park, that, rather than eat the bread that was thrown to them by people, picked up the bread and flew with it to the park’s lake, where they dropped it into the water to attract fish, which they would then take and eat.

This fishing technique is clever stuff. It shows they are capable of using the bread as a tool, that they use delayed gratification, and that they pass a culture to their offspring.

I know people who couldn’t do that!





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The Wild Heart

Most people think the best time to go about learning bird song and calls is the spring. After all, it is in the spring that the parallel world of the birds most strongly impinges on our world, through the dawn chorus and general bird activity connected to nest-building.

However, anyone who has tried to do this will testify as to its near impossibility. Many of the birds you will hear in the spring are summer visitors, so you’ll not hear them again till the next year, which makes the song difficult to remember. There are just far too many birds in the dawn chorus, as well, and it is difficult to pick out individuals against the noise.

Presumably, birds themselves are good at hearing and locating other individuals of the same species, otherwise this method of attracting a mate would be a singularly stupid one. But, for them, it must be as easy as telling a dog from a frog.

But we don’t hear/see it like this.

And it’s not a good place or time to start.

While I’m about it, don’t get one of those discs that have all the bird songs, because it’s the same problem. Just too many birds.

These guides are really difficult to use. You hear a bird on your walk. You really concentrate, and commit the song to memory. You get home, and listen to the disc, and the first song you hear completely wipes out all memory traces of the bird you heard on your walk. Now, they all sound like the bird on your walk.

No, that is not the way.

All you need are curiosity and at least one ear. No binoculars, no eyes, no field guides.

And this is the perfect time of the year to start. The summer visitors have gone to warmer climes, and no-one is struggling to get their voice heard above all the others so they can get a breeding partner.

The countryside is relatively silent.

When it happens, bird noise stands out clearly, and you have the whole winter to let it sink into your memory, so that, by next spring, you will have absorbed many of the songs and calls of our resident species, and you will have become attuned to the network of wild lives around you as you pass through the world.

At this time, and for the rest of the winter, robins are singing their mournful little song. Their song can be described as wistful and sweet, and it is one of the very few birds that sings all year. Their song is the song of November twilight.

So, if you hear a sad song coming from a bush nearby, stop and listen and wonder at its fragile beauty. Let it sink in. You have got a robin. There will be more, and soon you can identify it.

It is not singing for a mate. Robins are very territorial, especially in the winter, when it needs as much access to food as possible. Failure to hold a territory in winter would mean starvation.

So the robin is singing to get and hold a food supply.

The robin makes another sound, which is its warning or alarm call. You will hear it everywhere. It is a string of sharp ticks, like the sound of someone slowly winding up a cheap clockwork toy.

This sound is often a good guide to the lurking presence of a cat. Once you have tuned in to it, you will hear it everywhere, just as, when you learn a new word, you see it everywhere.

You are starting to read the landscape like a bird. Be aware that these birds are as wild as any animal on an African savannah, so just be still and listen and let the ancient wild heart beat in your heart for a bit.


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Scandinavians Are High as Kites

 Today is a wet day. The autumn air is full of the kind of rain that defies accurate description, for it is neither rain nor drizzle, neither mist nor low cloud.

It’s extremely wet, though!

The suspended water droplets are so tiny they almost seem to pass through waterproof fabric, through all those little holes that your sweat is supposed to be able to pass through. We all fell for that one, didn’t we?

Certain advertising campaigns get under even the most cynical radar. I still believe that a Mars Bar helps me work, rest and play, that toothpaste gives me a ring of confidence, that chocolates are the way to a woman’s heart, and that Goretex keeps the rain out while letting sweat through.

These unexamined statements are spawn of the devil, like people who drop litter and beer that’s too cold to taste!

However, after that outburst of rancid bitterness, it is still raining, and I won’t be able to go up Cop Hill, as I had planned to do.

The valley has a strange feeling of being cut off from the world, or cut adrift from it. The cloud looms low over Pule Hill, Deer Hill has almost disappeared, and yet it is sunny, apparently, on the other side.

The stationary high pressure system over Scandinavia means we are stuck. The weather is stuck, the clouds are stuck. Even my desire to take Ruby for a walk is stuck.

And so, while the Scandinavians remain high as kites, I have nothing to say. Of course, I have views on the great Issues of the day. I have views about the American Presidential election, about Britain’s exit from the European Union, about the Middle East, but this is not the place for becoming hysterical.

Here, I will keep my peace and remain inscrutable. I suppose this makes me different . . .



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Saddleworth: Diggle

Distance: about 2 miles

Grade: mostly easy, but difficult in places

This walk is a fairly straightforward affair, following the towpath of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal down the Diggle valley towards Uppermill.

Track from the car park to the canal

Track from the car park to the canal

It begins at the car park near the Standedge tunnel mouth. Here the emergence of the canal from under the Pennines is much lower key than its equivalent at Tunnel End in Yorkshire. However, the path is good, though the scenery is rather unspectacular.

Good path

Good path

The destruction of the textile industry in the late 20th Century is plain to see to your right.

Industrial decline

Industrial decline

The footpath is OK, but the stoney surface makes for an uncomfortable ride unless you go verey slowly. There are eroded sections on the steep slopes by the lock gates, and these sections are very difficult without assistance. Fortunately, it is a popular path, and most people will help you if you ask nicely.

The path at locks often becomes nearly impossible

The path at locks often becomes nearly impossible

Lock 25W is as far as I got, but it should be possible to carry on to Uppermill. I’ll try that later.

featured image


Historical note: Saddleworth used to be part of the West Riding of Yorkshire, but in 1971 it was re-organised into the new ‘county’ of Greater Manchester, which had been part of Lancashire. This was a seriuous matter for Yorkshire folk, some of whom still refuse to accept it.




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This is How it Goes

The British Labour Party is under siege.

Originally, at the time of its inception, it was a socialist party representing the membership of the trade unions, and therefore, essentially, working men. Its natural homelands were in the heavy industrial areas of Glasgow, the north of England, London and the coalfields of Wales. It was a party of the cities, not of the countryside.

Since the 1970s, it has been involved in a massive dialectical struggle with itself and with what might be called the forces of global capitalism, which have been trying, with some success, to marginalize it and exclude it from political discourse.

It is interesting to map this process.

The 19th Century philosopher, Hegel, described the movement of history as a constant process of the collision of opposing forces that combine to produce the next collision. It was a favourite interpretation of history by Marxists, but you don’t have to be a Marxist to see it in action, and Hegel himself was certainly not a Marxist.

Modern British politics did not begin with Margaret Thatcher, but we have to begin somewhere, and we must admit that she was the most influential Prime Minister of the late 20th Century.

If we describe the politics of Thatcher in dialectical terms, her ideas can be seen as what Hegel called the ‘thesis’, and the politics of The Militant Tendency and Tony Benn would be described as the dialectical ‘antithesis’. This is the conflict that drives history.

Thesis versus antithesis equals synthesis. The whole process moves on, now, because the compromise ‘synthesis’ automatically becomes the new thesis, and so on, ad infinitum.

Thus, we have Thatcherism versus radical socialism equals New Labour. Margaret Thatcher versus Tony Benn equals Tony Blair. This is, indeed, what happened, and a left wing Labour Party shifted to the right in order to pull in the left wing of the Tories.

This should not have been a surprise to anyone, even though, obviously, it was! It is the way history works.

New Labour, therefore, became the new thesis, the new orthodoxy, if you like, and David Cameron merely continued the New Labour pattern, even though he led a Conservative Government. The antithesis, or anti-orthodoxy, has arisen in the Labour Party, in the form of the Socialist policies of Jeremy Corbyn.

The dialectical struggle is now taking place inside the Labour Party, between Corbynites and New Labour.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives are moving in to claim the centre ground that Labour is vacating, for Politics, like Nature, abhors a vacuum.

The Nation’s politics is like a set of old-fashioned scales in which the fulcrum is constantly shifting from left to right and back again. With each shift of the fulcrum, more weight has to go on one side or the other to keep the scales level.

When the scales no longer balance, we have revolution and tyranny.

So, the Conservatives are now moving into the centre ground, to mop up disaffected New Labour voters, and the Labour Party will be further forced to the left to re-connect with left wing young people.

The next dialectical spat may well come from a conflict between the Conservatives and UKIP, before the Labour Party can live again with its right wing.


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