Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Video blog: Back in the UK

Here is this week's video blog at last! Had some trouble getting it uploaded.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


I have just realised that I left my copy of Walden in the studio at the BBC, so here's a quote from The Smiths:

‘Fame, fame, fatal fame. It can play hideous tricks on the brain. But still I’d rather be famous than righteous or holy, anyday anyday anyday...’ Morrissey, Frankly Mr Shankly

I sit on my mountain at night sometimes and I look at the stars. And I think about the size of this universe. And I think of its birth and its eventual demise. And then I think about the planet, and it’s history since the swamp things first struggled to breathe out of water. And then I think of the history of humanity, and of Western ‘civilisation’ and then I think of all the lives being lived right now on the planet. And then of my own life. And being ‘famous’ stops being quite so important for a while. In fact, NOT making an impression on the planet is becoming increasingly interesting to me.

But I want to not make an impression on a REALLY BIG scale and convince as many people as possible to leave light footprints too...

Yes folks, this week I have been back in London (as you will see from my next video blog). Wined and dined by the record company, chauffeured into Broadcasting House for a session on radio 3, then training it down to Brighton to play a gig (I am writing this on the train down there).

It’s strange but true. One of my neuroses is a desire for recognition. Stick that in your hash-pipe and smoke it, Mr Buddha. Mr Guru. And yet, while I get a buzz out of being on the radio, I am also excruciatingly aware of the folly of such a goal. (Actually, I don’t want to be famous like a Spice Girl, I want to be famous like someone with artistic integrity who is a total genius, and recognised as such, in my lifetime, and well-paid for being so cool and clever. Like Van Gogh or Nick Drake, but with a great publicist and no mental health issues.)

There is a story in a Buddhist text about an actor who goes to the Buddha and says ‘I am an actor. I make my living out of entertaining people and making them laugh. Will I be reborn in the Heaven of the Laughing Gods?’

The Buddha asks him not to ask this question, but the actor asks the question three times, and if the Buddha is asked a question three times, the Buddha answers it. He says, ‘No, you will actually be reborn in a hell realm.’

The actor is incredulous. ‘But why???’

‘Because, not only do you delude yourself, you make your living out of deluding others.’

Heavy shit, huh?

My own thinking on this is that firstly, I think the actor did plays that were more ‘Home and Away’ and less Shakespeare (and by ‘Shakespeare’ I mean the bits of Shakespeare that weren’t like Home and Away). I think that plays, and the arts in general, can be used to delude people or to point them in the direction of truth, beauty, and an opening of the heart and mind. Indeed the arts are an integral part of many Buddhist traditions.

Secondly, I think that there is inevitably an element of bullshit in any walk of life - Life As PR Exercise (‘That’ll look good on your CV’). We live in a capitalist society, and you might as well just acknowledge that you have been reborn in that situation, with those limitations, and just get on with it as best you can.

[I was once standing outside an ashram in India and watched all the beggars, looking absolutely at death’s door and half insane, until everyone had gone into the ashram, then the chai wallah poured everyone a cup of chai and they sat around and had a chat until everyone started coming out of the ashram, when the whole pantomime resumed. It was exactly like that bit in ‘Life of Brian’ where the centurion is trying to get some sense out of the jailors. I was reassured of the basic universality of the human condition. NB the beggars were in general suffering from terrible deformities and/or leprosy and were most likely from the ex-untouchable class and had no other means of earning enough to eat. I am not arguing that they were scam artists that were unworthy of receiving money from the devotees from the ashram. But if you are going to be a beggar, I guess you have competition for market share the same as in any other sector of the economy, so you use what you’ve got.]

And thirdly I think that if it is in you, provided it is not totally unskilful (such as a penchant for paedophilia) it is better to express that aspect of yourself than to repress it, but to express it in a way that is of most benefit to all beings. My basic view, with regard to one’s emotional, creative and even physical energy is that first you must unblock it, then direct it, and then refine it. The tantric path. We are not perfectly enlightened Buddhas. Obviously. At some point you have to let go of trying to be Superman and just be yourself.

But I am getting ahead of myself. After all, many people, and the culture itself, think that fame is a noble pursuit. So, the first question should be ‘Is it though?’

You will have to wait for the book before I give my full lowdown on fame. We are fast approaching Brighton and I need to think about what I’m going to play tonight. All I will say right now is that Eckhart Tolle talks about looking at the ‘Born’ and ‘Died’ dates on a gravestone, and then the hyphen between the two. And that hyphen is what we all consider to be SO significant...

I am on The Verb on Radio 3 this Friday 23rd at 9pm.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


My walk to get water:

Happy new year. Hope you had an enjoyable festive season. Mine was ok. The weather has been terrible for weeks (see above) so life has been a bit more of a challenge, and I have been having to ration my electricity due to lack of sun, but I am settling into being here and continue to enjoy myself. I have noticed that I am beginning to stop comparing this life with living in a flat, so I think I must be finally arriving here. For example, the time it takes to boil the kettle, or brush your teeth here is just becoming how long it takes. I have stopped thinking of it as slower than my previous life.

Next week I shall be hitting the UK for a few days. I’m going to be doing a session for a Radio 3 show called ‘The Verb’. I’ll also be doing a free gig in Brighton (see my website for details on both of these). I’m planning to take the camcorder, so you can see what I look like standing on tarmac (not quite as dashing, but still damn sexy).

This week’s blog is full of quotes from wise gurus from many traditions. Enjoy…


“I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Thoreau, Walden

“And though we didn’t have much money, I was rich as I could be, in my coat of many colours, my momma made for me”
Dolly Parton

I’ve been reading Seven Ages of Britain by Justin Pollard over the last month or so. Sadly, the industrial revolution has begun and the book has ended. I am now left with a head filled with 10,000 years of British history, a million opinions, and Britain is still 150 years away from putting cars on its streets.

One pattern that I noticed is that although technology, from the Stone Age onwards, has made life easier and allowed people to generate more wealth, what seems to have happened is that the wealth has consistently fallen into the pockets of the few, not the many. When society became more complicated, it did not benefit the vast majority of the people.

Further, it seems to have fallen into the pockets of those who were prepared to use force in order to acquire and protect it.

As well as using physical force (as can be seen today in the West’s attempts to secure a plentiful supply of cheap oil) there has also been a long history of manipulating culture and religion for economic ends (i.e. propaganda – as can be seen in the West’s attempts to secure plentiful supply of cheap oil). For example, the idea will tend to be floated that the monarchy and aristocracy of a country is either divine, or has been placed in that position because they communicate with gods, or because gods want them to be there. There is a ‘natural order’. The gods have spoken. Kings (and occasionally queens) are supposed to be at the top, and you, Sonny Jim, are supposed to be at the bottom. So shut up and get on with it. The caste system in India was/is an example of this (this was technically outlawed some years ago, but still endures).

But we’ve got science haven’t we. We don’t believe in God anymore, so we don’t have these kinds of psychological problems. We’ve got democracy. Right? Well…

What about the religion of celebrity? That these people are somehow special and different. They must be because they are all shiny, thin and apparently rich. Or the religion of capitalism? You are where you are because you are failing in some way. You just don’t have what it takes. There is nothing wrong with the system, there must therefore be something wrong with you. Or even the religion of Science for that matter. Most of us are a good few decades behind in terms of what we believe to be scientific 'truth' and we tend to be a lot more certain than the scientists themselves, because we only understand the broad brushstrokes of these outdated theories which we cling to, like previous generations clung to the 'good book'.

And this ‘democracy’ that the US and UK are trying to inflict on places like Afghanistan and Iraq is not exactly being installed in a democratic fashion is it? “We come in peace. Shoot to kill!”. And Guantanamo Bay. And the anti-terrorism legislation etc, etc, etc. Do they really expect us to swallow this stuff and believe we live in a democracy? Yep! And what’s really messed up, is we do believe it!

These kinds of beliefs help to maintain the status quo, and that helps to keep the incredible wealth that we all generate, and the wealth that is just lying around all over the place on this beautiful Earth, in the hands of the few. And it really is only a few. If this ever becomes a book I will dig out the research and give you lots of lovely statistics to prove my point. But as it is, I have only a certain amount of battery left on my computer and it has been either foggy or cloudy for the last few weeks so the solar panels aren’t generating much juice. Plus I am quite a lazy person and am a lover of big, general ideas rather than specific details.

One of the things I have been reflecting on over the last few days is whether or not poverty is a virtue. Certainly in Buddhism, the monks who technically own nothing (though sometimes live in very nice monasteries), beg for a living and in some traditions can’t even handle money, are held in high regard. The same goes for the Christians. Not sure about the other major religions of the world. But anyway, I have this idea buried in my psyche that there is something wholesome about poverty and something ugly about wealth.

At the same time, as a child of capitalism, I believe that money equals success, and the more you have, the better you are doing. Money can buy lots of things and I have a long list of the things that I would like to buy with it (e.g. a nice big, shiny, well-equipped recording studio. Oh yes and maybe a house).

So which shall I choose? Shall I feel bad for being poor or feel bad for being rich? As it says in that country song, “I been rich and I been poor and being rich is better”. There must be some other way.

There seems to be a ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ element to this. That is, there is how this plays out in your life, and then there’s the big picture.

Micro economics:

The Government has a specific money figure, below which a person is officially living in poverty. They also include whether or not a person has certain amenities in their calculations. But I don’t see it like that. When I talk about poverty I mean having so little that life is a struggle. That you feel like you’ve got a weight on your shoulders and you can’t see any way you can ever put it down. Poverty is a feeling, first and foremost. It is a state of mind – though external conditions (e.g. hungry belly, chattering teeth, no furniture) can certainly help to back that feeling up.

For myself I have no central heating, no water on tap (let alone hot water on tap), no double glazing (or even single glazing come to that). No kitchen, no bathroom, no connection to the national grid. It’s currently well below freezing outside and between me and the cold are a couple of pieces of canvas. For many people this would be abject poverty. Me, I love it. I feel rich and surrounded by the abundance of this beautiful world.

But for me, this is a choice. When you have no choice, that’s when you’re poor. I could go and rent a three-bedroom house somewhere within the week if I wanted. But I’m fine here for now, thanks.

Although I could rent, I couldn’t afford to buy a house without changing my working circumstances significantly (suit up, clock in, zone out has never been my style), and I couldn’t get a long lease on a council place because they were all sold off by the Demon Thatcher. I am far from one of the country’s trustafarians – play at being poor for a couple of years then settle into a nice pad in Chelsea when the lack of fine wine at parties becomes a bore. ‘I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do’ etc. So, like many others in England, I am in a bit of a fix. Which leads me to macro economics.

Macro economics:

On a macro level, poverty is most definitely not a virtue. I used to work in regeneration and I know that if you live in one area of Sheffield (the poor bit) you are statistically likely to die ten years earlier than if you were born in another area (the posh bit). You have to deal with drugs, crime and racism on your doorstep. Violence is a very real threat. Most people around you are depressed. The schools have low expectations of the kids, and the kids meet those expectations. The stuff that other people read about in the news is the stuff that you live in. And so do your kids.

If, as a society, we wanted to sort this out, we could. And it wouldn’t necessarily cost a whole pile of money. Much of it is about changing attitudes and rebuilding community. The places where the local people have done this off their own bat are incredible, fantastic, amazing examples of this triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I am truly humbled by these people – they are the real heroes of our society. If we gave them some proper power and resources, the UK would be a much better place. They shouldn’t be wasting their time and energy lobbying a blinkered Government, they should be the Government.

But the Government has big business to think of. It is not really in the interests of the Government or big business to have an educated, cohesive, aware working class. They might start demanding things! They might refuse to work in those shitty jobs that are needed to be filled if the rich are to stay rich! They might stop taking drugs, so we’d have nothing to have a ‘war’ on in the hope of getting re-elected without actually solving any real problems. (By the way, the rich gobble drugs too, but they don’t really feature in the adverts. We don’t really want to have a war on those drugs. After all, the City and the entertainment industries would immediately grind to a halt.)

Although it is not in the interests of the powers that be to effectively tackle poverty, it is in their interest to pay lip service to tackling poverty. That way people don’t get so irritated or desperate that they actually make demands. No, we can’t have that.

Divide and rule. Ghetto-ise the problems, then direct people’s attention towards the people who live in the ghetto and blame them for those problems (and therefore away from the gigantic injustices that are taking place in our name and under our noses at a systemic level).

That kind of poverty is certainly not a virtue, and I won’t even mention the poverty experienced in the so-called ‘developing’ countries.

Poverty is shit. It is not a virtue.

But that is not to say that simplicity is something to shy away from – wealth and ‘stuff’ are not necessarily the same thing. Just ask the great sage Dolly Parton.

It is simplicity that is the virtue – simplicity and contentment with simplicity. We shoot around, endlessly trying to create external conditions that will bring us contentment. We think if only we had enough stuff, we would be happy. Nope, happiness is NOW. You can cultivate it right now. This is what Buddhist simplicity is about. And if you aren’t happy, it’s not because you don’t have enough stuff, it’s because you haven’t got your head and heart around Reality.

We need to find ways to simplify our lives – for our own peace of mind, but also for the benefit of this tired world – a world that is groaning under the weight of our desires.

Ideally, we should have a general approach of simplifying our lives. Looking for beauty and joy in simple things. Reduce, re-use, recycle, as it says on Bob the Builder (on which there is a guy who lives in a yurt).

BUT, renunciation is a process, not a thing. We need to factor in our own happiness. A sustainable future is not a grim future – if it is perceived in that way it will certainly not arrive. Personally I would heartily recommend some kind of spiritual practice as an aid to developing happiness and contentment (yoga, meditation, qi gong, etc NB the shopping ritual doesn’t count). I would also recommend conscious thought and reflection about life.

In the words of those other great sages, the Spice Girls “Tell me what you want, what you really really want”. And that’s the thing. If you get deep enough into yourself to work out what you really really want, it is usually not ‘stuff’. The stuff symbolises a feeling that you think you would have if you owned it. Why not just look for ways to cultivate the emotion directly? Cut out the middle man?

E.g. You feel that if you had a few million pounds that you would not feel anxious about money. So you are looking to reduce your anxiety. Do you really have to get hold of a mountain on cash in order to develop fearlessness? (And by the way, you would still have the anxiety – imagine, one wrong move and you could lose millions of pounds!!!) Or you think that if you had that money you could do whatever you wanted. Is that true? Surely it is equally true to say that if you don’t spend your time getting into a position where you can pull in that kind of wonga, you can spend more of your time doing whatever you want?

Of course, I could write a whole self-help book about this, so for now I will leave it there.

Stillness, simplicity and contentment. The road to sustainability sounds great to me!