Acceptance Avoidance contingency Coping strategies Feel Better Impermanence Meaning Suffering Transcendence Worry

The Three Characteristics/Marks/Seals of Existence: A Practice

I’ve been thinking recently about a buddhist notion that all beings (including us), and in fact all phenomena, are marked by three characteristics. These are sometimes called the three marks of existence, or three seals: suffering (or some kind of “shortfall”), impermanence, and contingency

Here’s an acronym to remember them by: SIC! 

I’ve deliberately chosen SIC as it sounds a bit like “sick” when said aloud (as in debilitated, disordered, down in body and mind), but it’s also the word we use in a text to indicate a phrase or quote that looks dodgy but is in fact is exactly what was printed or said. As in when The Donald comments on Boris becoming PM:

“Good man. He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying ‘Britain Trump’ (sic). They call him ‘Britain Trump,’ (sic) and there’s people saying that’s a good thing.” 

The idea, as with all buddhist ideas, is that if we can really explore and understand on an experiential level these three characteristics, learn how to recognise them as they arise in our moment to moment perceptions rather than just as conceptual symbols on a screen or in a book, this exploration can greatly help us to live our lives in a more unencumbered way, with more peace and grace. So are you willing to do a bit of exploring? 

If so, here’s a quick overview of the three characteristics and then the simple, no-fuss practice. 


Dukkha, the pali word for this concept, is often translated as “suffering” or “discomfort”, but I’ve always liked the notion that its etymology can be traced back to something like “a painful, bumpy ride due to a poorly-fitting axle hole in the centre of a wagon wheel”. This is the buddhist version of “life’s a bitch…”. 

Perhaps a better translation might be something along the lines of shortfall or insufficiency: that unsatisfactory or peevish disgruntlement we experience, whenever anything in our experience falls short of our expectations. Once you start noticing the extent to which there is a shortfall between what we expect or desire, and what we actually get, you start to see this phenomenon everywhere, and in everything, a true mark of existence.

It pops up even in ostensibly good times. Let’s say I’m on a beautiful country walk, as I was yesterday alongside my trusty doggy companion Max, and for the most part having a great time. Yet even woven into that walk there were countless example of dukkha. Here are just a few:

  1. On my way to my destination, I find a quiet part of the train carriage to sit in so that I can read. At the next stop, a noisy family gets on the train, sits next to me and yaps away for the next 40 minutes.
  2. The weather app forecasts clear skies, no rain. So I don’t take any rain gear with me. For the five hours I’m out, it’s overcast for three quarters of the time, and rains off-and-on for an hour.
  3. I find a mobile phone in the middle of a forest which someone appears to have dropped. Even though the screen is locked, I manage to text a friend of the phone’s owner, and then agree to walk back to a pub I’d passed earlier, to return the phone. Twenty minutes later, the phone’s owner thanks me in brief, somewhat tepid fashion, the kind of thank you you might expect if you’d just told someone their shoelaces were untied. Effulgent, enthusiastic appreciation was what I’d expected for my do-goodery, thinking how I’d feel if someone reunited me with the expensive handheld computer on which all my unbacked-up photos, as well as the rest of my life was stored. A damp squib thank you was not what I’d planned for, but it’s what I got. My mind of course immediately stepped in to tell me that next time I should just leave the bloody phone in the forest, and let them find it themselves.
  4. I stop halfway through my walk to feast on a few handfuls of delicious wild blackberries, picked straight from the bush. Half an hour later, my stomach is distended and tight, and for the rest of the walk, I feel queasy and uncomfortable. Either the rain (see point 2) didn’t sufficiently wash off the bugs and bacteria, or maybe the high levels of salicylate in the fruit are causing me a few hours of stomach cramps. Either way, dukkha
  5. After 12 miles of walking, I get into the station at Cowden, only to find that the 8 o’clock train has been cancelled, and the next train into London is an hour away. The stomach cramps are just starting to abate and I am feeling hungry. At this rate, I will now have to wait until 10:30 for dinner. 

And on it goes. These are not huge traumatic forms of suffering, just the usual, everyday-dukkha, the niggles, the jolts, the stuff that might easily be generated if you just stop reading this sentence and sit quietly for a moment. 

Try it. It won’t take long before your mind points out some kind of shortfall, some kind of gap between how you’d like things to be, and how they are, whether it’s in relation to your mood, or body, or relationships, or surroundings, or the tasks you’ve taken on today. Non-stop dukkha is how it goes, I’m afraid. But keep on reading for some suggestions of what to do with that. 


I’ve written more fully about impermanence here, but let’s stay with that walk and notice a few marks of impermanence along the way: 

  1. My energy levels wax and wane, as do my levels of bodily discomfort throughout the walk. There is not a single emotion, or sensation held within my body or mind that endures for the length of this 5-hour ramble. The majority of my perceptions lasts for seconds at a time, some like the blackberry-reaction endure for over an hour. But even there, the amount of physical discomfort and the ways in which it manifests (queasiness, stomach cramps, trapped wind) shifts every few seconds from noticeably uncomfortable, to background “noise”.
  2. The walk itself is impermanent, as is everything I come into contact with on the walk. While I am on it, I am fully engaged with the totality of the experience flooding into my senses: sights, sounds, interoceptive responses. But writing about it a day later, it may well have been a dream. Apart from a handful of memories, I cannot bring anything of the walk back with me into this moment. None of it lasts, neither good nor bad. 
  3.  My disgruntlement at the phone-person lasts, but only due to the words above re-awakening and re-minding me of the gap in what I expected and what I got. But in a few days time, I will have forgotten this incident too. And at some point, there’s a good chance that it will entirely disappear from my memory. 


In buddhist literature, this is sometimes referred to as no-self, or non-self, but my understanding of this is that although we see ourselves as separate, self-determined entitites, our experience of the world is inextricably, at every moment of the day, shaped and circumscribed by our environment and life-context, as well as our life course up to this point, the weather, the people who populate our existence, and a million other factors that are not even a conscious part of our awareness. 

If you start to think about yourself in this contingent way, you soon realise that the story-of-me that we tell ourselves (here I am, going on a walk, on a Saturday afternoon, learning a poem, listening to an audiobook, enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells around “me”) is actually something much more mysterious and shaped-by-everything-that-is-not-me, which is to say shaped by my circumstances and surroundings rather than emerging directly out of my body and mind. 

Perceptually, a good analogy for this might be something like the Escheresque Rubin’s vase, where figure and ground get muddled the more we pay attention to the image: are the faces made possible by the vase, or the vase by the faces? 

Of course each shapes the other. Our environment impacts us in ways that we are often hardly aware of. After walking in drizzle and overcast weather for a while, when the rain abates and the sun comes out, I become a different person: lighter, more joyful, if only for a few paces before Impermanence sets in again, and I shift into another way of being. 

And this doesn’t just happen for us. Yesterday, I noticed that even the birds are “moved” or shaped by something as simple as sunlight. A moment before the sun came out, all was quiet. But as soon as sunshine broke through the clouds, rapturous birdsong rang out of the forest that I’d just passed through, sonically matching the uplift in mood that I’d been feeling, and who is to say we didn’t all feel a very similar buoyancy. Maybe even the trees, grass, and insects therein. For a few seconds, bathed in sunlight, we all became slightly different entities. 


So if you’re broadly speaking in agreement with this theory that all existence can be usefully understood as marked by three interlinked characteristics or seals, which we can either fight against or try to work with as best we can, how to make this happen? 

Here’s the practice, a very simple one that I’ve been trying out recently. Every time you notice some form of psychological or physical suffering, see if you can “seal it” with one of the above characteristics of existence: SUFFERING (aka distress/deficiency/disappointment), IMPERMANENCE, and CONTINGENCY. Often, all three are present, in which case you can designate what you’re experiencing with the SIC triple whammy. “Yeah, that’s some serious SIC there, dude” (or however you choose to acknowledge the presence of SIC).

Whichever of the three you notice, just label it, using one of three characteristics, and then see if that allows you to live more in accord with your environment and circumstance or not.

The three characteristics of existence in the order  I’ve presented them also perhaps adhere to the most frequent ways in which the mind becomes aware of them in consciousness. 

Some form of distress or unsatisfactoriness is usually picked up very quickly by the problem-finding/problem-solving mind as a form of SUFFERING  (irritation, disappointment, deficiency), or SHORTFALL: whether it’s having to stand in a long queue at Sainsbury’s, or not getting the response we might feel we need from a loved one. 

We notice this first characteristic right away, because that’s usually the part that hurts. And it hurts for a good reason: our minds are saying “Pay attention to this. This is not in sync with your wishes or needs. Maybe we can make it better or easier for you in some way?”

And yes, sometimes this problem-finding/problem-solving stance of the mind is genuinely helpful. Maybe I can find a quieter carriage of the train to read in, maybe I can find shelter under a tree when it begins to rain. But what to do when that suffering or shortfall cannot be eradicated, or avoided, or controlled in some way? What to do when your stomach is cramping and you’ve still got 6 miles to walk before you reach the train station – other than acknowledge what’s going on, and that there is  clearly a gap between what we want or were expecting, and what we actually get. Just acknowledge that, no more, no less, maybe with a simple word like “suffering” or “unsatisfactory” or “shortfall” – whatever works for you. 

I quite like using the pali word dukkha, just because it’s short and a tad brutal: the DU might as well be doo-doo, the KHA a stone in your shoe, or something worse (a scorpion?). Every time I say that word, it’s like acknowledging that life is often this way: you’re tramping along, just trying to get by, or get on with your environment or other people, and suddenly you step in a pile of shit that also harbours a scorpion’s nest. Welcome to the human condition.

Often, the recognition of SUFFERING, requires an accompanying recognition of the other three marks of existence, which are usually to be found somewhere in the mix. At times IMPERMANENCE is what we perceive first, either with or without DUKKHA. When my stomach gripes finally abated, I noted the  impermanence even of that painful phenomenon, and this was accompanied by the opposite of DUKKHA: SUKKHA (happiness, pleasure, ease)! Which of course only lasted for a few seconds before my mind went on to find fault with something else in my surroundings. 

Simply noting all of this and trying not to take it all so personally (CONTINGENCY noting helps a lot with this) can ease things a bit, or even substantially. Why not give it a go – you’ve got nothing to lose – and tell me what you think if you give this a try.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 3: Three Ways out Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind, as well as Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.]


That’s the million dollar question isn’t it.

The Suffering Mind wants none of this crap, this very human-suffering-crap – for no other creature on this planet suffers in the way that we do. None of them possessing the language with which to suffer: words, concepts, abstract symbols that can make thoughts and feelings and text-messages as mind-breakingly real at times as sticks and stones.

My dog Max experiences the pain of existence in exactly the same way that I do: the pain of physical and emotional injury, the pain of social abandonment and exclusion, of not getting what he wants. Max experiences “reality slaps” like this on a daily, even hourly basis (as do I). But he doesn’t suffer them in the way that you and I do. Not one bit.

Max will never write a blogpost or create a piece of technology called a laptop on which to write it. Nor will he, or any other member of his species invent something like the internet to disseminate these words to other sentient, language-producing creatures.

Us homo sapiens have immeasurably benefitted from language, but consider for a moment the price we’ve had to pay in allowing language to be the primary currency of all our mental processes. Because that’s how, for the most part, we communicate both inside ourselves as well as externally with other human beings. Think of the ways in which language produces joy and pleasure but also immeasurable suffering for each and every one of us on a daily basis, and for our human species as a whole.


If everything your language-focused mind has been trying to do so far hasn’t really helped, or helped in only a small way, maybe it’s time to look at some other options?

If you’re frequently locked in the struggle I’ve described above with your pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, problem-solving mind, maybe you need a more RADICAL solution: one that still uses language (our primary currency, we can’t avoid it), but is also opens us up to other channels of processing?

What we perhaps need is a solution that targets those three crappy layers, but not necessarily in the default Jim’ll Fix It ways of this thinking/languaging lump of human meat we call “the brain”.

If the Blinkered Mind is programmed to say GO AWAY to pain, as well as becoming at times overwhelmingly FUSED with it, then one thing we can maybe start to do is introduce some Receptive Mind strategies into the mix.

In this layer, we might need some DEFUSION processes to help us when we’re “stuck” in a particularly strong reaction (mental or physical) to a painful event.

We might also start practicing MAKING SPACE FOR for difficult thoughts and feelings.

MAKING SPACE FOR practices are an alternative to allowing the mind to do what it does best and by default: pushing painful stuff away, or wrestling interminably with it in the hope that it can be solved like a maths problem. This might help us to free ourselves up to focus on more meaningful actions and activities instead.

Part of this might also involve cultivating the second layer of RADness: Aware Mind.

One aspect of Aware Mind is the development of a more FLEXI-SELF approach to life’s challenges: practising ways of seeing things from different, and hopefully more helpful angles. Also: not getting into arguments or disagreeing with what our minds tell us about the world and ourselves.

To help us do this, we might need to “drop anchor” again and again in order to bring our minds back in MINDFUL CONTACT with what’s actually going on right here and now, as opposed to the what’s happening inside our language-filled heads.

Also, let’s clarify your core values and  begin some devoted, committed action: a few small steps, towards some meaningful goals in your life.

Each of the drawings in this post took me varying amounts of time to create, from a few minutes to a number of hours, and many weeks of writing and fiddling around with words and images to put it all together. The process was at times frustrating and disheartening when things didn’t go according to plan, but in the end I got this crappy little article out of it – a crappy little article which is meaningful to me, and hopefully for you too?

I’ve deliberately used a somewhat “spiritual” word here for the third RAD layer: Devoted Mind. Not because the valued actions need to be religious or spiritual per se.

You can be devoted to your family, or to a creative pursuit, or a football team. I’m devoted to my dog Max, and to my therapy practice, also to learning poems I love, like this one, off by heart (preferably on a walk or a hike). But I don’t have any expectation that you could or should become devoted to dogs or poetry or hiking, unless these are aligned with your core values!

We need to work out what you want to be devoted to, as well as how you’re going to show (through your actions) your devotion. It does seem though that choosing something important in our lives  “to set apart by a vow” (the origins of the word “devoted”) is almost essential when it comes to living life the fullest.

You get to choose however what you want this to be and how you can turn that into something meaningful that you can then dedicate time and energy towards.

So are you ready to take back control of your super-helpful, often over-helpful, problem-solving, pain avoiding (crappy) brain and get back to living your life to the fullest?

If you are, let’s talk some more about this RAD crap and see how I can help you to get a bit closer to some of the peace and contentment you seek, that we all seek, as well as a life that is valued and meaningful to you in the long run.


If you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind

[Before reading this post, you might like to look at Feeling Crap: A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind ]


Let’s dig a little bit more deeply into our very human crap.

Might it be fair to say your mind is labelling all of that crap as BAAAAAD crap at the moment? Good, let’s label it as BAD crap, because maybe that’s what it is, even though it’s also our brains and minds doing their brainy/mindy/languagey/labelling stuff (good me/bad me, good Mum/bad Mum, good day/bad day etc.).

It’s not our brain or mind’s fault. They’re designed to do this, remember? Problem-solve as much as possible through evaluation and comparison in a bid to keep us away from anything they perceive as a threat to us? And it’s not our fault for sometimes buying into the very BAD stuff they sometimes or often come up with. A rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong!

For the sake of simplicity though, let’s say there might be three layers to our suffering, three layers of BAD crap.

The first I’m going to call BLINKERED MIND.

When pain in any shape or form shows up in our lives, our problem-solving brains become very, very busy and focused on this pain as if the the pain itself were a terrible threat to our continued existence.

In order to work on these problems our brains quite often fuse with the painful thoughts, feelings, urges, or body sensations, to the point where the thing we’re struggling with starts taking over our lives.

It can sometimes feel or look like that moment in any good horror film where some poor soul is being jerked about like a puppet by the demon now controlling its mind and body. We too can also become controlled, smothered, overwhelmed by our own problem-solving, pain-solving minds.

Also, because pain in any shape or form is so uh painful, our suffering Blinkered Minds will often try to avoid this pain in a very intuitive way.

“GO AWAY it says to the painful thought or feeling. Also: “I’m getting away from all of this shit!” Maybe we go away with booze or drugs, ice-cream, TV (or in my case ice-cream and TV), Twitter/WhatsApp/Facebook, or working long hours.

Or maybe we physically try and escape our lives: staying in bed, or going on a holiday, or cutting off communication with someone we’re in conflict with. Again: the natural, default GO AWAY function of our brains and minds can sometimes start to run, and ruin, the whole show!

When our minds go Blinkered they often also go into Autopilot Mode.

Their focus, their “route” you might say is set, or stuck in a particular way of doing things.

Autopilot Mind equally gets stuck in the past or the future. Focusing bitterly, or regretfully, on where our lives are flying to and from.

Also: why this might be happening to us, or why this has always happened to us, returning again and again to a particular set of memories and experiences.

Sometimes our minds do this fruitfully, as when they sit down to write a short story or a memoir, but very often they do this with a great deal of suffering, and almost no benefit for our present lives.

We also often become fixated on what’s ahead: doing so so with anxiety, worry and problem-solving busy-ness.

Autopilot Mind has no time to enjoy the journey of life. Life is never a sunset or a shooting star,  always just another maths problem.

Like we might binge on a Netflix series, Autopilot Mind binges on problem-solving in an attempt to make sense of, or find a solution to our suffering. But because it’s on Autopilot, when it gets to the end of the suffering script or “route”, it just goes back to the beginning and starts all over again.

So we get stuck on certain routes or grooves of the mind, outdated coping strategies that whirr around and around like a broken record.

We can also get stuck in a certain way of being, a certain kind of identity. Why don’t you sit back for a moment and ask the Identity-Setting part of your mind to complete the following sentence stem and see what it comes up with.

[SPOILER ALERT: It’s unlikely to suggest anything especially positive. Minds aren’t designed to do that. Positivity doesn’t keep us safe from perceived threats and harm.)

Whatever “me” our suffering minds are identifying with at this moment…(again, complete the sentence stem below for yourself)…

…this “idea” of ourselves, these words, become like a small, claustrophobic single-seater aircraft which we can’t get out of until it lands.

Here’s another one for you to get your mind to work on.

Last one.

The main problem with this process is that our minds are designed to fly in certain patterns continuously, without ever landing.

Unless we help them to do so.

So that’s the second layer of BAD crap: when our minds, in the process of carrying out their primary tasks (analysing our lives as if they were maths equations) end up flying in quite rigid, inflexible patterns.

It’s often a case of 1+1=2 when dealing with our somewhat inflexible minds.

And 2, more often than not, can sometimes just equal more…pooh. More suffering.


Perhaps as a result of the first two layers of crap, but maybe also for other reasons we become DISCONNECTED from all the good stuff in our lives.

In Blinkered and Autopilot Mind we are often out of touch with those things that give our lives meaning, which is to say our core values.

What is it that really drives us? What do we want to actually DO with our one wild and precious life, other than fighting off painful mind-states?

Understandably, when we are disconnected or unclear about this, we can also become disconnected from…LIVING!

Which is to say: we stop doing all the things that are most meaningful to us whilst we fight with our minds. Instead of focusing on valued-living activities, we might also end up doing other stuff: things that we think will “make us happy” or give us some momentary pleasure (tub of Belgian Chocolate Häagen-Dazs and an endless stream of mindless sitcoms for Steve, please!), rather than feeding our souls.

Or maybe we end up doing what other people, or even the marketing forces of our culture tell us will make us happy, but often fail to do so.

So what to do about all of this BAD crap?!

Good question. You can find some answers to that in my final post on The Suffering Mind: Three Ways out of The Suffering Mind.


Otherwise if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605). 

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy ACT Anxiety Coping strategies Feel Better Living A Valued Life Meaning Mindfulness Positive Psychology Transcendence Values Worry

Feeling Crap? A Brief Introduction to Your Suffering Mind

Hello, are you feeling a bit crap?

If you are, welcome, you’re in good company.

You might not feel like you’re in good company. In fact, you might feel quite alone at the moment: at odds, and kind of stranded with your suffering mind.

When we’re feeling crap, it’s very normal for our suffering, problem-solving minds to react to those crappy feelings with a lot of self-doubt and worry.

This is the kind of thing my suffering mind starts saying. How about yours?

Our suffering minds will usually start responding to the problem-solving questions they pose to themselves, giving us lots and lots of feedback.

Imagine the above “feedback” delivered in the sneery, sermonising tones of your least favourite person. I call this part of my suffering mind “Dave” after someone I went to University with. Dave really thought he was my friend but he was actually a bit of a know-it-all bully. Do you have your own Dave, or Mildred who’s absolutely certain of what you’re doing wrong with your life?

Here’s another question the suffering mind poses to itself and attempts to answer.

Let’s watch Dave answering the must-be-something-wrong-with-me question (for me). You might like to tune into your own suffering mind at this point and let your own Dave or Mildred supply you with a wrong-with-you list for yourself.

And it probably won’t stop there.

When our suffering minds get stuck into us, what they “say” can feel very real and pertinent.

Our response is often just to suck it all up: “Yes Dave, you’re right! I am all of those shitty, unlovable qualities! And look at my massive, Dumbo-sized ears!!!”

This is because, when our minds start to suffer, we become fused with their words to the point where they can start to feel really overwhelming! A bit like this.

We lose sight of the fact that these are just words being churned up by our own minds in an attempt to “helpfully” explain the reasons for why we might be feeling so crap.

Our suffering minds forget that they’re just a blank page onto which anything (any thought, feeling, sensation, urge) can be “written” no matter how hurtful or ludicrous. Instead we all too easily buy into and sort of become those words floating around in our minds. When that happens, I would call my experience a “suffering” one. How about you?

When we are suffering, not only do we blame ourselves for being human, but also others. We might even start blaming Dave, our very own minds and brains, labelling and sometimes shaming them with analysis, diagnoses and put-downs.

We can also become very frustrated with ourselves for not-feeling-OK.

He’s right though.

A healthy human brain like Dave is perfectly compatible with a suffering mind. In fact the two might go together like [cue this song from Grease!]: a rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong?

Maybe this is because Dave was not –sorry Dave- designed by Apple (or Samsung).

Three hundred years of evolutionary science and a 100 years of neuroscience have pretty much confirmed that our healthy, but oftentimes suffering human brains are “designed” with 3 primary tasks.

Can you guess what those are?

Go on! Before scrolling down, guess the job description for that three pound blob of fat, and blood and white-grey matter, that sits perched on the top of your spinal cord, which we all proudly call THE HUMAN BRAIN!

You can perhaps start to see how these primary tasks carried out 24/7, automatically, in no consultation with our minds, might lead to good feelings at times, but also lots and lots of suffering. Almost as a by-product.

Say I’m at my local Morrisons, happily filling my supermarket trolly with ice-cream, and wine, and cheese, and crackers, and chocolate, and maybe some salad too. I’m looking forward to all that yummy stuff, and feeling pretty good at this pleasure seeking moment (dopamine!).

I’m also relieved to have seen and avoided my neighbour – the one I had an argument with with last week who I spotted walking down another aisle. Whew, and another dopamine hit of pleasure!

But maybe that evening I eat the whole tub of Hagen Daz as I am wont to do and drink most of the wine and feel sick and full of self-loathing.

And maybe if I hadn’t avoided that uncomfortable meeting with my neighbour in the supermarket we might have been able to get back on an even keel?

If you’d like to dig a little bit deeper into this, please take a look at my second post, Feeling Crap 2: The Three Layers of Your Suffering Mind.

Or otherwise, if you’d like to arrange an initial consultation session to talk more about whatever it is you’re struggling with at the moment, we can organise that via email or telephone (07804197605).

Also please feel free to drop me a line if you have any other questions regarding the therapy I offer. I look forward to hearing from you.

Acceptance Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Anxiety Avoidance Control Coping strategies DBT Emotion Regulation Feel Better Living A Valued Life Strategies and tools Thought Suppression Transcendence Worry

The Stoic Fork

At the moment, I wake up to jackhammers and drills.

Not just the usual jackhammers and drills of my own thought curves and mental convolutions, supplied by that sometimes-not-so-kind, maybe even Totally Loopy Word Machine we call the mind. But also “real” noise, and lots of it, from the builders next door who are probably going to be around for the next couple of months (!!), completely refurbishing and extending 109 Ruskin Gardens.

I’d been warned, I knew it was coming, and have got the owner of 109, Mr Patel to graciously agree to keep the work relatively quiet when I’m seeing clients. But at all other times,  the gloves (or in this case, the jackhammers, drills, power-saws, etc) are off. Which is to say “on”. All the time.

Already I can feel the effect of all that banging and the drilling on my nervous system, and partly in response to this, am trying to re-engage with a mindfulness practice: mindfulness being all about working on our willingness to “be with” upsetting thoughts, memories, body sensations, and external irritants. Especially those we have limited or no control over. 

I’ve also been finding a great deal of solace in a fork. A conceptual fork. Though in sessions, I’ll occasionally rush into the kitchen to grab a real fork in order to explain the concept to someone else.

This conceptual fork, sometimes called The Stoic Fork, is designed to get us to reflect on control, as well as the relinquishing of it. If you’re anything like me, control is important to you. It helps you to feel like you have agency, and choice, and most importantly “a say” in what happens in your life.  And yes, control is important. One understanding of depression is that it proceeds from a misperception that we have no control over our lives whatsoever, that whatever we’re struggling with is so difficult and burdensome and entrenched, that we will never, ever, ever get a handle on it. Understandably that can be something of a buzzkill (to say the least).

This fork that I’m going to excitedly wave in front of your face says that we do have control, we do have agency, and the ability to make choices that are value-driven and meaningful to us. It says that we do have control over choices that will impact on how we live our lives right now in the present, as well as choices moving us forwards into the kind of lives and people we want to be in the future.


We need to skilfully differentiate between what is in our power and what is not. And that very differentiation happens to be the first thing we read about in a book of collected discourses issuing from the lips and the mind of a crippled, Roman slave named Epictetus who lived 2000 years ago. I like to imagine him as a slightly more philosophical and Latin-spouting version of Tim Renkow’s lovably, cheeky character in his new sitcom Jerk (if you haven’t seen it, do!).

Here’s a little experiment for you to try out before I explain the fork.

Think of something that’s getting you down at the moment. It could be anything: a physical ailment, a relationship issue, a problem at work, a crass comment someone made recently in your presence, something unsettling you’ve seen or read, or even six dudes banging and hammering and drilling all day long right next to where you’re sitting trying to capture the evergreen wisdom of Epictetus 😉

Make a mental or actual note of this thing, this thing that’s irking you. Now imagine me whipping out my IKEA fork (see drawing below) and asking you, as Epictetus might have done to another slave as they laboured from dusk to dawn on a Roman building site: “How much control do you have over this person/thing/situation/noise that’s upsetting or worrying you?”

Be warned! This is a trick-question. If you’re anything like me, you might say this in response: “Well not much, not as much as I’d like, but….”


“Don’t lecture me on control. Control has got nothing to do with this. Or if it does, it’s because that person/thing/situation is out of control and they’re driving me craaaaaaazy.”

To which I imagine Epictetus using his walking stick to draw a line in the sand showing the following “fork”.






























As you can see, on the right he’s written the kind of things we sometimes believe or think (maybe not always consciously) that we can control, especially with regard to other people: what other people think what they say, how they act around us. But equally this works with any phenomenon in the outside world, or the inside world (our thoughts, feelings, body sensations, urges, memories). I have no control over whether my stomach might decide to translate my anxieties and worries into an unpleasant, nauseous sensation, or if my head might suddenly begin to ache, or feel tired and woozy.

Epictetus believed that the only thing we have any control over are thoughts/feeling, and our actions. As you can see in the picture above, I’ve gone and crossed out THOUGHTS & FEELINGS because although he was an incredibly wise man, and although many of his thoughts and theories have formed the bedrock of our modern psychotherapy and psychology practices, we also know now, that thoughts and feelings, just like body sensations, memories, and urges cannot be controlled!

I can no longer control what thought is going to flit into my mind in the next minute than I can control what tweet Donald Trump is going to send out to his 60 million followers in the next hour. In fact, modern psychology has shown that the more we try and control our thoughts, feelings, urges, and memories, the more persistently they surface to assail us. It’s a bit like a government trying to ban a “naughty” or “insiduous” book or film (Lady Chatterley’s anyone, A Clockwork Orange?): as soon as people catch wind that now they’re not “allowed” to read that book, or watch that film, that’s the only thing you then want to do. Our minds seem to work according to similar dynamics.

If this is so, then we need to keep on reminding ourselves in some way, that the one and only thing we have any control over whatsoever, is our behaviour: our actions, our words, the things we write and say, and do. That’s it. That’s all we have. And that’s a lot!

Want to feel more in control? Control, in a healthy-ish, skillful-ish way your actions. As we know, there are lots of unhealthy ways to control our actions: starving ourselves (eating disorders) or overeating; exerting or harming our bodies so as to distract or focus our attention away from our pain; limiting our interactions with people we might enjoy being with in order to keep ourselves safe. So as with anything, a mindful approach is best when it comes to our actions. But always with the notion that, apart from what we say and do and write, we’re not in the driver’s seat of any shared inter-action (with another person or the world), and never will be.

How does one then apply this wisdom? I find it helpful to use the fork as a kind of reminder or mantra when I find myself getting irked by someone else’s behaviour. Let’s say a friend or a loved one does or says something that triggers me in some way, so that my knee-jerk response is one of the following:

  1. “I wish they hadn’t said/done that!”
  2. “Why couldn’t they have responded to me with X, rather than Y”
  3. “I bet they’re now thinking this about me!” etc. etc.

This list might stretch to infinity, as infinite are the ways in which our minds proliferate suffering on the back of a perceived threat or hurt. At this point, if I’m quick enough to catch the panicky or angry thought, I might inwardly try and shrug my shoulders, call to my mind the image of that stoic fork and go:

“Can’t control her/him/it. Let it go.”


“ I have no control over this person/situation/thing. Let it go.”


“Not my circus, not my monkeys!” (or if you prefer the original Polish version of this expression  “nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy” [pronunciation here])

I might follow this with an attempt at a kind of rueful smile here, which can also sometimes help, particularly if it replaces the expression on my face at that moment which is likely to be a glowering or grimacing one.

It’s a simple practice, but I find it quite a powerful, especially when used in the midst of interacting with other human beings who are invariably going to be saying or doing things we wish we could control, but acknowledge we can’t. And even it allows us to be a little bit more flexible and kind with ourselves as well as with each other, we’re onto a winner.  

By Heart Ethics Living A Valued Life Maslow Pleasure Poetry Koan Transcendence Values

I Have Wasted My Life

32030865198_3e9f731e1a_bThere is a well known poem by James Wright with a title so long it sounds almost silly at first: Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota. The poem, I think, gets to the heart of what I’m trying to understand here. It shares the experiences of a human creature, Wright (?) having a series of devotional, almost otherwordly moments, and yet the poems also stays profoundly embedded in this world, the world of nature. It also ends on a real humdinger of a last line. If poems had ‘plot twists’ a la The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, this would be it.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

The poem commences with an incredibly evocative visual palette of bronze and black and green [2], before moving into the more abstract realms of empty spaces: the ravine, the empty house, the sound of cowbells seemingly unattached to any cows. Notice the use of the definite article in the first two lines (“the bronze butterfly…the black trunk”), as if this was the only bronze butterfly and the only black trunk in existence.

Often with transcendental experiences, there is a sense of the utter rightness and revelatory significance in an impression or a thought, accompanied by an ineffable slipperiness in how to communicate this understanding to anyone else, even a future self who is no longer in that state anymore. There is also a kind of alchemy at work here too: of turning shit (“the droppings of last year’s horses”) into gold. Surely whatever we do with our lives, no matter how productive they are, we are always going to be comparatively lacking compared to the numinous perfection of this pastoral scene?

I’m curious to know more about Wright and the making of this poem, so read a bit from James Blunk’s biography of Wright. I read of how in August 1960, Wright (alcoholic, philanderer) [4] brought his family out to Robert Bly’s farm in Minnesota to be near to his friend and mentor. One day the two drove to Bill Duffy’s farm on Pine Island, a city that also numbered Ralph Samuelson, inventor of waterskiing (FYI) as one of its inhabitants. Duffy had gone off to Tangier to teach, which is perhaps why the house in the poem stands empty. Bly had been asked by Duffy to do some maintenance work on the farm, and so explains Blunk, “while [Bly] and a carpenter drained the plumbing and built a new cellar door, among other chores, Wright retreated to a green hammock that hung between two maple trees at a distance from the house” and wrote this poem.

As I attempt to learn this poem by heart (it’s a great poem for by-hearting by the way – while learning/reciting it, you and 1960 Wright are one – eerily so) I keep on returning to the following question: what is the opposite of “I have wasted my life”? If waste is to squander, misuse, spend like water, be prodigal with, blow, mishandle, fritter away (which is also inbuilt into the process of living a life), what would it mean to do the opposite? A thesaurus suggests a list of stingy alternatives: to hoard, to save, to accumulate, to profit by, to take advantage of, to exploit. Are these in any way better options?

Maybe the opposite side of the Life-Well-Lived/Used spectrum might be:

“I have utilised my time on this earth profitably”?


“I have made the most of my life”?

Or what?

Maybe these sentences would resonate more if presented as a series of ‘nots’: I have NOT squandered, misused, frittered away my life, LIKE OTHERS HAVE, AND DO! So where’s my pat on the head for that? Who is going to give me that pat on the head?!?!

Once again, we’re back to one of the earliest and most fundamental of ethical questions, which is also the title of that frustratingly unreadable book by Sheila Heti: How Should A Person Be?

Be, not do. For being (in this case: lying in a hammock mindfully) doesn’t necessarily lead us to feeling we’ve used our time meaningfully whilst embodied here on this planet. But how should a person live, if living is more than just being? Especially when that living is gifted to us in limited quantities? Bernard Williams opens his classic book Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with the following statement: “It is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live.” Simon Blackburn in his primer Ethics: A Very Short Introduction notes how tricky it is to even listen to the self-appointed moral philosophers, both those in academia, and individuals who play this role for us in our family of origin or friendship circles:

“We do not like being told what to do. We want to enjoy our lives, and we want to enjoy them with a good conscience. People who disturb that equilibrium are uncomfortable, so moralists are often uninvited guests at the feast, and we have a multitude of defences against them.”

This is particularly true for the psycho-active substance user, whether that substance is sugar, coffee, nicotine, cannabis, or alcohol. Our default position is generally one of “don’t tell me how many chocolate digestives, lattes, cigs, joints, pints I should consume!” when perhaps the more interesting response, if we can put our defensive outrage on hold is: let’s think philosophically and psychologically about all of this stuff, because it’s at heart a really, really interesting question and affects us all in one way or another.

I like writers who remind me of how tenuous and unfounded our notions of who we are are, how shaky (because temporally and culturally specific) the foundations of our ethical universe are. Paul Bloom in his book How Pleasure Works marvels at the fact that “Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing….This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, two-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: “I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends.””

Which is perhaps to say: we all spend our evenings Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, whilst someone else (for Wright it was Robert Bly and the carpenter), are  no more than ten feet away, sawing, hammering, and constructing something far more important (at least in terms of Maslow’s triangle) for human existence.  

The question that interests me is whether at the moment of being immersed/lost in our respective imaginative worlds, the neurochemical functioning of our brains is really that different when all of us are engaged in states of flow, either substance/conversation/exercise-enhanced or not? Would it change the way you feel about Wright’s spiritual (for want of a better word) experience at William Duffy’s farm if you knew that he had been assisted or “led” into that experience via a psychoactive substance like a strong coffee, or a chocolate bar, or tobacco, alcohol, cannabis?

I don’t think so. But then I’m the guy who pays a lot of attention to people’s dreams, as well as the their unconscious motivations expressed in their fantasies. And there’s clearly nothing self-possessed or abstemious about our dream worlds.

Why do we feel the need to be so categorical? The novelist David Mitchell has Wright’s poem stuck to his wall “as a reminder to stay inside the moment. It asks us not to let our minds rerun things that have already happened, not to trouble our head fruitlessly about things that haven’t happened yet. Inhabit the now, the poem urges— just see the beauty around you that you don’t normally see…”

“I forget this all the time,” he writes, “all the time. If I remember to do what the poem ask for 0.1 percent of day—slow down, look closely—then that’s a great day. An enlightened day. Usually, though, it’s nowhere near even that.”

What Mitchell is suggesting, and what another commentator Patricia Hampl draws out more explicitly is the negative-capability at work in the piece, to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenges. This lies at the heart of the being productively unproductive and vice-versa: “He has wasted his life precisely because he sees he has not wasted his life enough. Or really at all until this moment. That was his mistake. He has not failed.”


By Heart Denise Levertov Mystery Poetry Koan Problems Revelation Transcendence

By hearting Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov

Days pass where I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.
And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.


Days pass where I forget the mystery.

When I started learning this poem, I would play around around with the word days, sometimes substituting “hours”, “minutes”, even “seconds” for Levertov’s unit of time. For example, the span required (about a minute) for me to type this sentence is already a time of forgetting. Even whilst commenting on a poem that functions as a momento mysterium or sacramentum, my focus on getting these words out in the right order and with sufficient clarity and coherence, means I lose sight of the very thing that the poet implicitly cautions us through herself not to forget. 

Forgetting what? Well, this! Forgetting as a dimming or blurring of fully conscious living. “Among the worst and most crippling of human losses is the loss of the capacity to be alive to one’s own experience—in which case one has lost a part of one’s humanness,” writes the psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden. Ogden likens the alternative remembering, now everywhere dubbed, somewhat unpoetically as “mindfulness” to a particular kind of “knowing”, more akin to that of dreaming oneself  fully into being he suggests. Sometimes we are able to do this for ourselves, and sometimes we need to do it alongside another such as a friend, a lover, or a therapist. Or maybe in this case: a poem.

Mark Epstein sees this ontological forgetting as a kind of narcissism “exposing the gap within: the emptiness, inauthenticity, or alienation that results from estrangement from our true selves and our confusion or ignorance about our own true natures.”

Here we have two clues to forgetting, but what of the mystery? And what would remembering as opposed to forgetting even entail?

Here’s one possibility.

Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, then bring your attention to your inner world, and as you breathe out ask yourself the question “What is this?” I’m now going to bring in Stephen and Martine Batchelor from whom I learnt this practice:

You are not repeating the question like a mantra; you are cultivating a sensation of perplexity [mystery!], asking unconditionally, What is this? This is not an intellectual inquiry. You are not trying to solve this question with speculation or logic. Do not keep the question in your head. Try to ask it from your belly. With the whole of your being, you are asking, What is this? What is this? You are asking What is this? because you do not know. If you become distracted, come back to the question again and again. The question What is this? is an antidote to distracted thoughts. It is as sharp as a sword. Nothing can remain on the tip of its sharp blade. By asking this question deeply you are opening yourself to the whole of your experience, with a deep sense of wonderment and awe.

Did that help you to “remember” the mystery if only for a moment? It helps me. As does learning and reciting poetry by heart, which I think is why I chose this poem alongside Pat Schneider’s “The Patience of Ordinary Things” and David Whyte’s “Everything Is Waiting For You” as daily “blades” to poke me into a keener remembrance of the “this” and “what” and especially “is”.


Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.

I’ve been trying to classify my problems over the week while learning this poem into these two categories:

1. Problems Insoluble

2. Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions

Problems Insoluble are presumably all the BIG existential conundrums such as Aging, Sickness, Separation & Isolation, Meaninglessness, and Death. The Four Sights that set Siddhartha on his path to understanding, and possibly even coming to some kind of reckoning with (?) two and a half thousand years ago. These are the anxiety-provoking insights of into our mortality and suffering that Sid encountered as soon as he stepped outside the cushy confines of his father’s compound.

Problems Offering Their Own Ignored Solutions on the other hand might include: The Cheesy Bacon Flatbread you just ordered from McDonalds not living up to display ad. Or the guy/girl you’ve just met for a drink through Tinder not living up their display ad. Or a new wireless router requiring you to change the setting for every device in the house. Or maybe the strain of trying to keep a hard-cover book propped open on the table whilst eating breakfast cereal.

But they’re also likely to include, and maybe even more than the somewhat tongue-in-cheek examples above (all sourced from #firstworldproblems on Twittter) elements of the Problems Insoluble list, even if packaged in more worry-friendly chunks or domains. These might include: Relationship worries, Self-Esteem issues, Aimless Future worries, Work, Finances, as well as the pervasive unsatisfactoriness of just about everything else.

What I love most about the way Levertov frames these problem is how she slips in that word “ignored”. In some respects all or our problems have some kind of solution which we more often than not don’t really want to consider, and probably hearing this will sound a bit like an admonishment, it does for me. Perhaps we don’t like the solution because it might be as much about learning to tolerate the unsatisfactoriness or insolubleness of the problem itself, or maybe it asks us to sacrifice something in the short term to benefit us in the long. As human beings we’re very good at ignoring and distracting ourselves away from these options. Often because the Ignored-Solutions seem somewhat humdrum and require a sort of quiet, persevering faith in a greater-than-ourselves mystery which doesn’t really have the repletion or glamour of those cultural courtiers (Netflix, Facebook, Instagram) or the charismatic power of a solution-proffering guru (Tony Robbins, Martha Beck, whoever).


And then
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me

All we know of the mystery at this point is that it is “quiet”. Which comes from the Middle English word denoting peace rather than war. And the Latin word for repose.

But also, usefully: without much activity, disturbance, or excitement; without being disturbed or interrupted; carried out discreetly, secretly, or with moderation; mild and reserved by nature; expressed in a restrained or understated way; unobtrusive; not bright or showy.

All of these descriptions point to the essence of the quiet Levertov is leading us towards in this poem: those moments when we connect deeply with ourselves and the world around us. As I sit here on my second day of writing this post (Sunday morning) I am relatively quiet according to most of the definitions provided above, as are my surroundings. Doggie Max is snoozing on the bed, grey Sunday morning rain and sleet cocooning a quiet space around us.

My daily reciting of poetry learnt by heart, even though my mouth is filling the air with sound, also corresponds in some way to this type of quiet. The quiet (even for seconds on end) of a breathing meditation or What Is This too. A quiet which is also a kind of flowing aliveness as is walking in nature. The witnessing presence of a tree, or a mountain, or the sky. The settling and balance one feels viscerally at these times. The mystery of this quiet is that it is so hard to capture in words. Again and again Levertov, as do so many other poets, attempts this in her writing. As in another poem “In Whom We Live and Move and Have our Being” which ends on this quiet note: “we inhale, exhale, inhale / encompassed, encompassed.”

In some sense, it is almost easier to feel the quiet when it isn’t there, when we notice its cessation or a feeling of disquiet, either as a visceral or mental disturbance. Read any page from Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet and you’ll immediately feel this scratchy dread that haunts and relentlessly pursues him, offering him no respite other than temporarily through writing or alcohol.

Pessoa understands, as does Levertov, that mystery can also be disturbing and unsettling, as in “the metamorphic apparitions” of “The Centipede”, which as Denise Lynch notes is presented to us as “frightening, fascinating, unfathomable, but ultimately inviting the heart’s embrace”.

There are clues to the mystery in some of the other poems I’m dipping into this weekend from her Levertov’s Selected Poems: the “provisional happiness” she refers to in “Of Being”, as well as “this need to dance, this need to kneel”; the “awe so quiet I don’t know when it began” from “That Passeth All Understanding”; the “Transparency seen for itself— as if its quality were not, after all, to enable perception not of itself?” such as in “that sheer clarity” of water, air, and light (“Sands of the Well”). 

In another poem, “The Antiphon”, she prefaces her verse with these from an anonymous French author: “L’Esprit souffle dans le silence là où les mots ñ’ont plus de voix.”. (Mind/spirit breathes in silence, where words no longer suffice.”)

Commenting on this poem, Sue Yore notes: “Silence – the place of no words – is where moments of revelation and spiritual rejuvenation occur.”


the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that
hour by hour it continues
to be sustained.

As with Quiet and Disquiet, Levertov frames some of the anythings and everythings she gives us with a void. Darkness. Rightly so: beyond the jostling problems of this planet and the creatures on it, we are surrounded by a whole lot of empty inky space. Writing an appreciation of the poet H.D, Levertov notes that the older poet “shows [us] a way to penetrate mystery” not by “flooding darkness with light so that darkness is destroyed but entering into darkness, mystery, so that it is experienced.” Here we perhaps begin to see the relationship of the void with that of “quiet mystery”.

This also factors into the relationship of the poet’s voice to the void, reminding Levertov, Rilke-aficionado that she is, of Rainer Maria’s conception of the artist described in “Concerning the Poet” where he envisions a sailing vessel travelling upstream, and a singer sitting at the front right-hand side of the boat.

Whilst those about him were always occupied with most immediate actuality and the overcoming of it, his voice maintained contact with the farthest distance, linking us with it until we felt its power of attraction.

I do not know how it happened, but suddenly, in this phenomenon, I understood the position of the poet, his place and effect within time, and that one might well dispute his right to every other position but this. This one, though, must be allowed to him.

Rilke implies that the creative power of human beings lies in their receptivity to the divine spirit and to matters enigmatic and equivocal. Matters of the void, of what is this, of the blank page or universe. In her poem “After Mindwalk” Levertov finds in the void set before us by the world of quantum physics “a new twist of Pascal’s dread”. It is always a delicate business when it comes to approaching the void: how to stay on the right side of awe and wonder rather than fear and dread.


I’ve taken liberties with the last few lines of this poem. Forgive me Denise. At the end of the poem Levertov addresses and admires a deity “0 Lord, / Creator, Hallowed One, / You still, / hour by hour sustain it.”

I’m not averse to there being a Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, but I’m not sure I want to address Them directly from my voice and heart every time I recite the poem.

If anything, this would actually draws me away from the mystery, part of which lies with the question of who/what/how this all came into being!? If we wrap it up, as Denise does, with a capitalised Lord, Creator, Hallowed One, then some of the fleeting, enigmatic and indeterminate aspects of this mystery are taken away for me at the end of the poem.


What I want from this poem, and what I achieve for myself by the change I’ve made to the last two lines is a suspended state of, well, mystery: mystification, wonder, mind-boggliness. In other words: this primary wonder reawakened and revivified in me over and over, every time I repeat the poem. 

To do this, I’ve tweaked the poem, putting the last line into a passive voice, which hopefully leaves space (mystery) for a deity to be present in the creation and prolongation of the “everything”, or not.

You could see it as a slightly Buddhist edit. Coming back to Siddhārtha Gautama, our 2,500 year old psychologist who was no less alive to the mystery of existence than all his wise predecessors, but differed in one profound respect regarding the religious thought into which he was born (Vedic Brahmanism/Ancient Hinduism). That is to say Sid rejected, or rather was indifferent to the idea of a Creator  per se, as well as the notion of an eternal soul.

Sid would probably not deny, and nor would I, that there is a profound mystery and wonder in our perception that “cosmos, joy, memory, everything” continues to exist, moment by moment, and (fingers crossed) will continue to do so after we’re gone. But ever the psychologically-informed pragmatist, as he demonstrates in his Parable of The Poison arrow, Sid would have it that getting too entangled in the whys and hows of our suffering, or any other mystery for that matter, doesn’t necessarily help us appreciate the mystery before us or live it to the full.

I’d like to think Levertov would allow me to shape her poem as much as I need to in order to make it work for me. Levertov herself was always an extremely porous and hybrid spiritual seeker, having as she called it “a do-it-yourself” theology. The roots of this are to be found perhaps in her father, Paul Levertoff, who had been a teacher at Leipzig University and a Russian Hassidic Jew. Her mother, Beatrice Adelaide, was a Christian from a small mining village in North Wales.

After her father emigrated to the UK after the first World War where he had been imprisoned in Germany as an enemy alien he not only converted to Christianity but became an Anglican priest. The family was housed by the church in Ilford, ironically a very Jewish neighbourhood in London, with Levertoff’s parish in Shoreditch. “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervour and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells,“ writes Levertov in an essay.

For much of her life Levertov would have classified herself as something of an agnostic, and yet in her late-60s, she became a Roman Catholic. Along the way, she was as much influenced by the Buddhist-flavoured Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, as she was by 14th century Christian mysticism to be found in The Cloud of Unknowing. In her diary, Levertov also experimented with the kind of tweaks I’ve rendered to her text, imagining how she might substitute the words poetry and poem for “God” in The Cloud, overlaying this overtly religious text with her own concerns and understanding, as I have done to “Primary Wonder”. 

I am not surprised to find that this poem is the last poem in her final book, Sands in The Well, published in 1996 (Levertov died in 1997, aged 74). I would like to think that even after a life full of learning, teaching, and publishing (24 books of poetry as well as books of criticism and translations), alongside many prizes (Lannan, Guggenheim, National Institute of Arts and Letters), this quiet mystery continued to be the most important thing to her.

In an Afterword to Levertov’s Selected Poems, Paul A. Lacey describes the challenge of “religious” also “political” poetry like this:

“Here the writer speaks out of personal experience and deep feelings, [but] the reader who shares neither may perceive only abstractions and tendentious opinions. The writer tries to speak of the flesh-and-blood experience which informs beliefs and convictions; readers who have not shared the same or similar experience may see only poeticized doctrine—unfamiliar to some, too familiar to others, a source of resentment to still others. To carry the reluctant or resistant reader along on the double journey of art and faith, this poetic faith, everything depends on how well the poet can ground the sensation and feelings, the testing of faith and doubt, belief and disbelief in the poetry and invite the reader to participate with the poet in a process of exploration and discovery.”

Levertov does this again and again in poems like Primary Wonder, and this process of exploration and discovery for me becomes most alive when a poem we love is learnt by heart (even in this somewhat bastardized form) as a kind of “oblique prayer” (to use the title of Levertov’s 1984 collection) and celebration.

Robert Creeley in an introduction to this same volume describes how much he misses her, in that along with being “an abiding poet” she was first and foremost “a wonderfully explici human being…caring for life, our lives, as people, the world forever the one in which all must finally learn to live while we can.”