Dear friends and colleagues
I have given this post this title in honour of a writer and journalist I used to like to listen to many years ago, Alistair Cook who used to read his weekly ‘letter from America’ on ABC radio in his wonderful melodious voice…
I am so enjoying being in America, New York so far…. I love its diversity. This morning we went to a cafe called Jack’s Stir Brew in Greenwich Village, the woman sitting next to us had a copy of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and a copy of Annotations on Finnegan’s Wake and she seemed to be making her own annotations as well in tiny writing on the text, taking sips of coffee from time to time. In another cafe a guy was reading something that looked very literary, in Russian. There seems to be rich intellectual scene in Lower Manhattan.
I am in the US to give 5 talks on mindfulness which I half prepared before I came, thinking there would mostly likely need to be some adjustments when I arrived. I think I mentioned in my last post that I have been reflecting on the work of the historian and philosopher Peter Kingsley who believes that in the West we are on a course of forgetfulness, a course of not understanding our sacred origins. He suggests that we tend to romanticise the sacred origins of for example Tibetan Buddhist (and this is particularly relevant given the appeal of the Dalai Lama in our times) or South American traditions, any tradition almost, unless it is our own.
I support Kingsley’s view that it is not until we have a firm grounding in our own Western sacred tradition, that lies at the origins of Western science, philosophy, thinking, then we can properly relate to other sacred traditions. Otherwise we could be engaging in a kind of cultural/spiritual tourism where we cherry pick those aspects of a tradition we can live with and jettison those we cannot.
I finished reading Kingsley’s book Reality just before landing in New York and it has really stayed with me. We are staying in Tribeca and I did not quite realise just how close it was to the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Centre The first night I was aware of feeling a lot of fear around me and I dreamt of dead bodies. A couple of days later we went to visit the memorial which I found deeply moving. It is an amazing creation, featuring 2 square black voids set amidst a reflecting pool of water and surrounding waterfalls. Only one was accessible that day…. I was struck by the stillness, power and beauty of this abyss, paradoxically the rushing water serves to intensify the contemplative nature of the space.
I had been thinking about the ancient Greek myths about the underworld and Kingsley’s reminder that we need to go deep beneath the surface of ourselves to find true knowledge, and that mostly we skim across the surface, not really knowing our purpose. The pool seemed to symbolize the journey into the depths for me. When I visited the memorial shop I learned of the Survivor Tree, another powerful symbol,this time of resilience since this tree was found still alive under some rubble, nurtured back to health, then uprooted and nurtured again, and now going strong. I thought of Kingsley’s reminder that for the ancient Greeks the journey into the underworld, facing the darkness in ourselves in order to find the light is a journey towards immortality…
When I came back to the hotel I wanted to find out more about the Michael Arad the architect who designed the pools.I found a fascinating article taken from the book Makers of Modern Architecture by Martin Filler has integrated the architect’s unique biography and character and examined the cultural, economic and political context in which he worked for the 9/11 Memorial. Apparently Arad had proposed a more spatially complex version that
expanded the squares into subterranean cubic memorial chambers open to the sky and enhanced with curtain-like vertical fountains. Visitors would have been able to proceed down to the bottom of the pools, which were to have been ringed by walkways, the walls behind them inscribed with the names of the dead, with the central square pools shrouded by cascades of water pouring down steadily from above.
For a variety of budgetary, infrastructural, and security reasons he was forced to abandon his initial idea of the below-ground memorial chambers accessible to the public, which he compared to Orpheus’s descent into the Underworld, “a vast emptiness that you cannot enter but can only contemplate as you look into the void.”
He was naturally very upset at this turn of events and decided he had two choices to walk away and resign from the project (his design had been chosen from a field of over 5,200) or he could come up with an alternative solution that ’retained the spiritual essence of his initial idea’.
I believe he has been able to do this and I found I had the kind of ‘descent into the underworld’ experience he was hoping for. It has been a powerful experience and has me continuing to reflect on East and West. I didn’t have my copy of Barry Long’s book on terrorism where he predicted something along the lines of 9/11 would happen but I looked up an excerpt on the BL website and found these chilling words:
The terrorists’ motivations cannot be comprehended by the conventional mind or western attitudes because they operate at a subconscious level; they represent a new psychological phenomenon rising out of the unconscious in man. Its only purpose is to destroy the certainty of the westernised mind.
Every terrorist act has a subliminal message that lodges somewhere in the human psyche…..There is no conventional power-drive in this kind of terrorism, no personal reward apart from death. As the precursors of an approaching new culture, paranational terrorists tend to come into western civilisation from the geographical East. Where the westernisation process is most advanced and the social conscience is most likely to be outraged is where terrorism will strike most hideously and most often.
Kingsley writes of the ancient Greek belief that the forces of Love and of Strife were needed for evolution and that if we did not make a conscious descent into the underworld we would be ruled by the darkness.
We can look to the East if we want for the sense of meaning and direction lost in the West. But to find freedom there from the turmoil of the West , its intelligent chaos, is ultimately to only end up more bound. Trying to escape from our civilisation can offer not real solution. What is needed more than anything else is to penetrate to the roots of this western world and release the wisdom that has been waiting there for so long.
I have a real sense of the truth of these words and will write more about my perceptions in the coming weeks as I make more sense of my experiences…..
In this neck of the woods they say ‘keep warm’, at home we say ‘keep cool’…. so wherever you are as you read this, choose the one that is right for you!
PS I haven’t referenced Kingsley and Long properly but am happy to do so if you would like me to when I get home.
PS II I hope there are not too many errors in the above….this is something very fresh…
PS III Please do respond if you feel to,many of you say to me in person or by email ‘I was going to respond but’ … I understand of course but its great to have your ideas on the actual blog…