Monday, 23 February 2009


This week's quote is not from Thoreau, but from a Buddhist academic called David Loy, basically because I read an article of his this week and found it interesting.

Also, an article of my own has been published on this week.

And now for the blog:

“... for many premodern societies, the physical conditions of their survival were often precarious, so we have embraced technology to control and secure those conditions. The supreme irony of the ecological crisis, from that perspective, is that our technological efforts to secure ourselves materially over the last five hundred years are what have caused the biospheric degradation that now threatens our very survival.” Loy, Remaking the World, or Remaking Ourselves? Buddhist Reflections on Technology

Using natural resources to develop technology is potentially dangerous. Not using natural resources to develop technology is potentially dangerous. Life is potentially dangerous. So maybe fear of danger isn’t the best criterion for making choices about how we organise our lives.

At the moment I am working out how to cultivate the spring on the land. I have been thinking about it, looking at it, musing, experimenting. At first there was a puddle. It was a puddle with potential, but still just a puddle. I dug a hole where the puddle was and it filled up with water. When the mud settled, the water was clear, but the hole overflowed, so you had to walk through boggy land to get to it. So I dug a channel from the hole. Now when it overflows, the water doesn’t flood everything.

I decided it was probably a good idea to cover the hole so that it doesn’t become the local hang out for all the thirsty animals. I have also started to surround it with stones.

This is an ongoing project. I have seen a few springs and so I have a sense of how they are traditionally cultivated around here, but I am also free to come to my own conclusions and to try things out.

The same is true of everything here. Making and maintaining the yurt, making a kitchen, a wood shed, and generally sorting out a functional (and beautiful) living space.

I am free to do all this as I see fit. I can’t get sacked, sued or passed over for promotion. And I don’t need to hire a contractor with a certificate in spring cultivation. If I want to stay in bed until the afternoon, in general I can do that. I have no demands for money arriving on my doormat from utility companies. I have no landlord or mortgage.

There is a general assumption that technology allows autonomy. All those labour-saving devices that let you spend your time doing other things. Mobile this and instant that. Do what you want, where you want, when you want. Do life your way.

One irritating characteristic of technology though, is that it doesn’t happen on a small scale. It happens in complex societies, with complex economies, and it happens usually out of a desire to make money. If you want to enjoy the freedoms that technology offers, you have to tie yourself into a whole bunch of relationships and contracts that you wouldn’t choose if you didn’t have to.

Let’s forget about the taxation levied to pay for infrastructure and defence of our stash. And let’s put on one side the utility companies wired into your home, so you are in debt to the company even if you just want to drink a glass of water or take a shit. Let’s stick to a basic example for now: how you spend your time.

If you want to own and use technology, you need money. For most of us, this means you need a job. That is, you need to sell your labour (i.e. your time). In order to sell your labour successfully in a complex economy, realistically you need to specialise. You need to be an X or a Y, and you need to build up qualifications and experience in your chosen profession. And if you don’t get the qualifications and experience for whatever reason, you will have to be really specialised. Screwing in widgets all day or making a machine go ‘beep’ at the check out.

In general, being an X means that you have committed to not being all the other letters of the alphabet that you might like to be sometimes. Further, you need to make sure that you are exactly the type of X that employers want you to be, so you probably need to go to college and learn what that is, then keep your head down and do it that way. There is little room for initiative, experimentation and doing things according to your own rhythms. Some of us manage to live creatively, but we are very much in the minority.

Contrast this with a self-sufficient life. The self-sufficient life most certainly has its limitations, and you need to do certain things you might not be in the mood for. But it is far more varied, and you are in a relationship with the natural world, not with an economy. Your immediate environment provides everything you need. No shops, no employers, no adverts. You look at what you need and what you want and you work out how to make that happen. You are free to make it happen any way that occurs to you. You are free to experiment and to make mistakes. You own your life.

There is a nice balance between mental and physical work. Your attention is engaged, but not overly taxed, to the point where your head is spinning at the end of the day and you feel like a brain on a stick, completely divorced from the gangly thing that people talk to when they want something from you (i.e. your body).

Your body is engaged, but you are generally free to work to your own rhythm, and because your mind is engaged in the work too, you don’t turn into a robot. The physical work in a self-sufficient life is varied. It does not require you to do the same thing again and again, from nine to five, five days a week, 48 weeks a year.

The embodied, engaged-but-not-hectic mind is exactly the kind of mind you are trying to develop in meditation, which suggests that leading a self-sufficient life helps you to lead a spiritually-nourishing life.

I am not self-sufficient, and I do enjoy technology. I wouldn’t want to turn my back on the whole thing, but I do think it’s important to acknowledge what it really costs, in terms of our life and our freedom to be who we are.

Loy makes an interesting suggestion about how we, as a society, could make choices about how we use and develop technology. Rather than leaving it to big business and the profit motive, he argues that we might be better to do things more democratically. We could discuss what we actually need and want as a society, and develop from there.

This kind of ‘discussion’ is not as far-fetched as it seems. Governments carry out consultation exercises as a matter of course when developing new strategies, that go on to become initiatives or legislation. Why not have a technological-development strategy too? If we could actually get this to happen, and provided the Government didn’t balls it up with red tape and too many layers of bureaucracy, this approach might produce quite different, more measured, and more satisfying results.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


“A voice said to him – Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these. But how to come out of this condition and actually migrate thither? All that he could think of was to practise some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever-increasing respect.”
Thoreau, Walden

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve played the silver ball. From Soho down to Brighton, I must have played them all... Oh no, wait. Wrong movie...

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve had a lust for adventure. I’ve wanted to go and find the unusual experiences, the peak experiences. To ‘suck all the marrow out of life’ to quote Thoreau.

I think it’s a fairly universal desire for the young man – the quest to find the boundaries, and hopefully to pass beyond them, into new territory. To take some risks and taste the extremes.

This is one reason why young men drive too fast, drink too much, experiment with drugs, travel the world with a backpack and one change of pants, and tend to be a real pain in the arse at parties. (NB many cultures have initiatory rituals to deal with these drives and initiate young men into manhood. I think we could do with some of them in our culture too).

So here I sit, in the middle of the night on a mountain far from my hometown, in an alien culture, in an alien structure, warming myself on wood from trees planted by someone else’s great grandparents. (I only use the dead wood – no trees were harmed during the making of this movie).

This desire to get further and further out has never really left me. I have always hunted out the fringes. The highs and the lows. I have shared the pavement with the homeless and I have shared dinners with the aristocracy. I experimented with drugs until it was no longer an experiment, and then I experimented with other ways of surfing the psyche, and diving deep into its oceans – that’s how I landed at Buddhism. I’m still experimenting with that. I guess this drive is one of the reasons I love to make music. Art is a never-ending experiment. No one seems to know what art even is...

The most surprising feature of the fringe for me has been the speed with which it becomes incredibly ordinary. Peak experience cannot be maintained, by its very nature. The sublime is a fleeting thing that can be glimpsed, but cannot be lived in.

There is a book by Jack Kornfield (which I haven’t read but it has a catchy title) called ‘First the Ecstasy, then the Laundry’. So much of life is laundry.

My life on the mountain has become an everyday experience for me. It has become the laundry.

I am older now and I have come to expect this. The trick for me, and I guess for all of us, is how to live with that in peace and contentment. What that actually means is, when your ‘self’ catches up with you, what then? Run off and attempt to escape into another adventure, or sit with it and... and... and???

I can’t remember where, but I remember reading years ago that all of the problems of the human race stem from our inability to sit happily in a chair for any length of time.

Samsara, which is the Buddhist term for unenlightened existence, literally means something like ‘wandering on’. Nirvana on the other hand, has its root in a term meaning ‘to put out’ or ‘to extinguish’. The flames of desire are extinguished once and for all. Sounds kind of boring though, eh?

Well, not really. That’s the problem with trying to use words to describe something beyond language. But the discussion on mystic wisdom will have to wait for another time.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that here, on this mountain, I am getting into the everydayness of my life. I have emptied out all the unnecessary alienated drudgery (as far as is possible right now). What is left is fetching water, gathering wood, maintaining the yurt, waiting for the rain to stop, cooking food, waiting for the kettle to boil, etc, etc.

This kind of drudgery seems acceptable to me. It feels real. In fact most of the time it doesn’t feel like drudgery at all. Even though I may have times when I want to escape from it, I know that here is a place I can genuinely try to practice ‘everyday Zen’. In the complex life of contemporary Western society I spend a lot of time thinking ‘What the f***? This is mad!’ and looking for a way out. I think it is possible to practice everyday Zen in that kind of a life too, but not for me.

Here I feel that life is sane. Me as an organism, me as a person, and my lifestyle are pretty much in balance. The pain seems reasonable, the pleasure seems reasonable. The risks and the comforts all make some kind of sense. I watch the flow of my mental states and the flow of my emotions and all of it is grounded in something grounded. Know what I mean?

Of course in writing this down I am being far more clear than all this really is, and I am painting a picture of purity and simplicity that isn’t totally there, but nevertheless, there is some truth here. There is something of value here.

I remember reading, I think it was Gary Snyder (well-known Buddhist, early environmentalist, and Beat poet) talking about when he was living in a Zen monastery in Japan. They had to fetch the water from the well and do various other chores and he came up with a way to get the water into the kitchen without having to carry it, and a number of other labour-saving ideas (I am paraphrasing madly here but the vibe is true to the text). When he shared these ideas with the monks they chuckled and said ‘You haven’t got what this life is about at all, have you’.

We can keep creating bigger, better, faster, easier ways of doing life forever. Where does it end? When is enough? And what is the point? What are we trying to achieve? I mean really, what??? Nobody seems to ask these questions, and until we do, we will not get a grip on the semi-conscious attitudes, beliefs and values that are leading us to environmental, and therefore personal, ruin.

To want to improve one’s life is natural. The question is, what will bring a genuine improvement? When I think this through, I always end up concluding that spiritual practice is the only sane answer. Working with our mental states is the only way to achieve anything of genuine value, once the basics of taking care of ourselves are put into action. A vacuum cleaner that does the carpets while you’re at work then gives you a blow job on your return might well be the next must-have appliance, but will it really make life really any better than it was before, once the novelty has worn off? When is enough?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


“While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me.”
Thoreau, Walden

You can’t really plan your life here in the same way as you can in a city. It has been raining most of this week. Heavy rain. Parts of the land look like day three at Glastonbury festival. So that prevented me from working on various tasks which required me to be outside. The weather has a big impact on this kind of lifestyle.

Like Paul Simon, I get all the news I need on the weather report. Well, I would if I had a TV. And could speak Catalan.

I have taken to writing lists. I don’t estimate how long something will take, because you can’t. And I don’t think ‘Tomorrow I will do X and the day after I will finish off Y’, because you never know. I just write a list and then work through it as best I can, when I can.

You need a lot of patience here. Patience is one of the six ‘perfections’ in a particular strand of Buddhism (the Prajnaparamita tradition for those of you interested in chasing this up and finding out what the other five are). By patience, Buddhism means something like ‘remaining in a positive mental state when faced with obstructive conditions’. The three things that Buddhism suggests one specifically needs to cultivate patience towards are:

1. illness
2. other people, and
3. the weather.

It seems that in some ways, things haven’t changed that much in the last two thousand years!

Anyway, this week I have been trying to cultivate patience towards the bleeding weather. Again. Not unlike my comrades in the UK. I understand you have had a spot of snow? :-)

On the upside, this has meant that I have been writing some new music and having some new thoughts.

With regard to time, and having more of it, I have been thinking that this life would work better with a few more people around (though see point 2 above). I can see why tribes form. A lot of work benefits from economies of scale. For example, you can cook for four people without lots more effort than cooking for one. And while you are cooking, the other three can be off doing work that you would otherwise have to do. And a fire uses the same amount of wood to heat four people as it does to heat one. It seems clear to me that the individual, the couple, and even the nuclear family, are not big enough units to be living in. A few families and a few generations living together and sharing the load makes much more sense.

The trouble is, I am riddled with individualism. I like the idea of living as part of a community, and having a bunch of people around to share the work and share the evenings with. I like the idea of having kids around and elders. But I like my space and my freedoms too.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. As a culture, I think we are going to have to go beyond the cult of the individual – everyone having at least one of everything, and preferably one that’s slightly different from the neighbours’ (‘which mobile phone expresses who I would like people to think I really am?’). It is wasteful of course, and it requires us to work harder and longer, but the other thing about it is I don’t think it makes us very happy.

I think really, you have to get your hands dirty with life. You have to dive in and get involved. The trouble is, we’re too busy seeing others as objects in our subjective experience, and expending our effort on trying to maintain the illusion that we are everything the advertisers say we ought to be.

The inevitable shit that needs to be worked through in our relationships doesn’t get worked through because people don’t want to really be changed by life. They don’t really want to be part of something. When it impinges on our sense of self (which often gets called our ‘ego’ these days), the current trend is to just walk off. And that way we don’t end up with the feeling of connection that we crave. The sense of belonging. Of being home.

We rattle around the world buying things and looking for an instant hit. If we are not in 100% happy mode all the time we feel that we must simply not have got the right stuff yet, or not be with the right person, or not be hanging out in the right scene, or that there is something wrong with us. And the advertisers rub salt in our wounds because these insecurities are good for business.

According to the Buddha, suffering, or at the very least, dissatisfaction, is an inherent quality of unawakened existence. The dissatisfaction is caused by craving for X and trying to avoid Y all the time. If the world does not conform to our present desires, and if it does not change its configuration in exactly the same rhythm and direction as our desires change, we experience dissatisfaction. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the propensity for dissatisfaction built into this set up.

So the trick is to go beyond the rushing around after X and taking out law suites against Y. It’s about cultivating contentment with how things are, trying to move things in your desired direction, while at the same time being patient and finding enjoyment in the process.

That’s the theory anyway. Putting it into practice can take a while.

I guess one of the reasons I tend to write sad songs is that this side of our experience tends not to be shared with others. We slap on a smile and feel isolated and alone. I’ve always written songs to get that out of me. And I chose to release them to the public because hearing songs like that has saved my poor heart on more than one occasion. So I hope maybe I can return the favour.

But don’t forget the songs that made you cry
And the songs that saved your life
And when you’re dancing and laughing and finally living
Hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.

Monday, 2 February 2009


This week began with a destructive unwanted visitor...

“When I return to my house I find that visitors have been there and left their cards – either a bunch of flowers, or a wreath of evergreen, or a name in pencil on a yellow walnut leaf”
Thoreau, Walden

One thing that Thoreau never talks about in Walden are the hard times. The times when you think ‘Am I completely insane? Is it actually possible to live like this?’

Walden is all about ‘Oh la de da, life is bliss and you’re all stupid for doing day jobs and going to dinner parties’. But I bet there were plenty of times when he thought that he’d got it wrong, and that civilization was industrialising for very good reasons.

When something like this happens, you feel vulnerable. It’s easy to see why humans have tried their best to render nature impotent – it’s higher up the food chain than we are. Unfortunately, and despite the basic vibe of the Bible, and the general direction of science, we can’t render nature impotent. We can only wind it up to the point that it has us for breakfast.

The other option of course is that we realise that we are nature, and nature supports and provides just as much as it threatens and destroys, and we shift paradigms and live in balance and harmony instead of always trying to dominate and contain, like some intellectually challenged school bully who doesn’t realise the kid he’s hassling has a black belt in karate and about 3000 mates just around the corner...

After the wind subsided, the next few hours were spent trying to drag the yurt back into position (my abs are currently pretty sore as a result – it is heavy), re-fitting roof poles, making the stove stable again, and generally getting the place back to some kind of livable. Followed by a little fire in the stove and a nice cup of tea, though this wasn’t particularly relaxing, as I was worried that the stove might not be safe and my ears were acutely aware of the sound of the wind, and wondering if the worst was still to come...

The next day I found out that there had been winds of 120kph. 21 people were killed. Loads of people were without electricity. The news was full of stories of collapsed buildings, overturned lorries, uprooted trees and general mayhem, all caused by the wind. It seems my little yurt is quite robust after all. You can trust Mongolian nomads to design something that’s fairly sturdy I guess.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the concept of ‘security’. Does it really exist?

It seems clear that freak weather conditions are becoming, and will become, more common. The old ideas about security need a makeover. Security cannot be guaranteed by piling up as much money as you can, insuring yourself up to the eyeballs, building a big wall with razor-wire on top and CCTV, a burglar alarm hooked up to the police and a reinforced steel ‘safe room’.

Security (such as it exists in this fragile world, with such fragile bodies as ours) comes from the realisation that we are all inter-connected. If I go, you go. And vice versa. It’s win-win or lose-lose and that’s that. Global warming is now accepted as fact by everyone who knows anything about it, despite what certain Republican politicians might say. And global warming is a group issue. It affects individuals, but it cannot be affected by individuals, except to the extent that those individuals affect the behaviours of the group. So here I am, shooting my mouth off again…

I watched an incredible DVD called ‘Garbage Warrior’ about the architect who invented the ‘Earth ship’. That guy is a genius. I urge you to watch it. Basically he makes these beautiful, well-functioning, totally self-sufficient houses out of rubbish. Old tyres, old plastic bottles, old beer cans. Amazing. These houses don’t require heating or air conditioning. They gather their own water. They sort out their own waste and power. You don’t need to be hooked up to any grid or any pipes.

This is how I am living of course, except these houses look really comfortable and much more in line with how people want to live. Yurts will never take off as a viable solution to the environmental crisis, but these houses really are a viable alternative to our current reliance on fossil fuels, land fill and big business. The ideas are there – we just have to use them!

One interesting point the architect made, given my ‘Death to the City’ post, was that he sees a future where the cities are abandoned because they simply cannot support themselves. People will only go back into the cities to mine their resources, scraping out the scrap, in a very different world...

Until next week