Slow Volcano

We’re inundated morning noon and night. A whole parade of tugs and pulls from a world impatient to embroil us. We have to have an opinion. We’re outraged by tiny things.

Out and about in the world we see people doing things we’d like to be doing. Kissing a lover. A couple holding hands. They seem well suited. Friends lying on the grass with a bottle of wine. Shirts and blouses off in the blistering heat. Hooray Henrys driving an open-topped sports car to the beach on a glorious day. A mellow summer’s evening, sitting outside a pub with a pint. Discussing the affairs of the day.

They catch us unawares, these feelings. When we’re feeling down, lonely. They make it worse. Though we may have done all of these things in the past, it looks like other people are doing them all the time. All you’re ever doing is trudging to the shops or staring out of your window. Twinges of envy hit us with monotonous regularity. It’s not as if we are actually envious of some stranger in the street. For all we know they may have a dreadful life. Far worse than our own.

Nevertheless, what cannot escape us is the dissatisfaction which up until then had been tucked away. We catch a whiff of it. We feel the depth of longing that makes us come to doubt the value of our own lives. We feel its full weight. The incident that incited it largely irrelevant, though some still cling to it as if a swap of lives were imminent.

It is seeing the vigour that there can be in life, but feeling one has failed to embrace it. Or that to you it was never on offer. Just not knowing how much you could have done to make more of your life. Is it a forlorn hope that things could change so late in the day? Little pricks of regret that you didn’t do this or that. Lamenting not having a more expansive personality. Things could have been so different! If only you had been more confident at an earlier age. You feel restricted, held back, in a quandary as to why others have it so easy.

Never does it strike us our best goal is to just steal ourselves away from these corrosive thoughts. Stop letting them foist themselves upon us. Let it go. Stop stirring it up.

The trouble is we’re fool enough to think we’re missing something if we don’t spend each day nit-picking our minds. We think we’re losing chances. Life’s little opportunities are passing us by. We forget our real ideas just occur to us out of the blue. One day you’ll be sitting down doing something else and it strikes you. Why don’t I do that? It’s so clear you set to work immediately. There’s nothing about it that’s come of dwelling on discontentment. You let your thoughts push you around for nothing if you think it’ll result in eventual inspiration.

Ambitions. Desires. What you want. What you don’t want. Wanting for wanting’s sake. It’s a millstone around the neck. For all this, there’s a want we overlook. We’re made to face it when despair wells up in times of loneliness and disappointment. We want peace of mind. Yet most of what we do disturbs it, we’re too busy chasing after mirages of happiness to pull back and take stock.

Until you receive a blow, something or someone lets you down, you become disillusioned and are forced to reconsider the direction of your life. It’s then, looking at the trees, the clouds, listening to the birds, that we realise just how utterly excommunicated from nature we feel. Completely cut off from a true living goal. We throw up our hands and plead to be told what we must do with our lives to find lasting fulfilment.

We have become so brash trammelling our way through this world. Far from finding satisfaction you find yourself het up by trivia. Arguing over little things that don’t matter. Everything seems artificially complicated for no good reason. It’s all a giddy whirl. More meaningless than ever. Usually just when you thought you were getting somewhere too, when things were falling into place. It’s then you realise you have very little to fall back on. A few wise words you once read in a book. “This too will pass.” A bit of stiff upper lip. But essentially, alone and fearful.

What you thought would lead to finding purpose in life, a little nugget of satisfaction, seems instead to have burdened it with obligations you feel no sense of loyalty to. You spend each day going through the motions awaiting a change. You never lose your faith, entirely, that something will happen, soon. But nevertheless it gets harder to reconcile it as the days turn into weeks the weeks into years and the years keep on falling away. Spending all this time trying to puzzle out why getting what you wanted is not what you thought it would be and why what you really want seems withheld, as if you were the butt of a cruel joke you’re going to be forced to laugh a bitterly empty laugh at.

At the back of your mind is just jacking it all in. The whole damn lot of it! Beginning afresh. This time doing it differently. Living a simple, unassuming life. Something drastic. Selling up! Escaping the rat-race for a life of rural self-sufficiency. Doing up an old van and taking to the road. Travelling the world. Going to a monastery even. That’s the simple life! Why be anchored in the city doing the same old chores? And yet, when you’re honest with yourself, when the first flush of enthusiasm has died down, you’ve got to admit you have no great inclination to up sticks and leave for good. There’s still a lot you like about what you’re doing already. It’s just this damn gnawing hunger for something else!

Let’s face it, heading for the hills speaks more of the desperation to escape than the penchant for simplicity. There’s no guarantee your troubles won’t follow you, you could be lugging your unquenched longings everywhere you go like an overloaded packhorse. It’s so easy to put our hopes for the future behind an alluring pipe-dream so long as we have yet to set out.

Why shouldn’t we be able to do it? Others have! Trouble is, being bent on working our way towards taking a path that will eventually prove itself not for us after all will just bury us deeper in a rut in the meantime. And it’ll distract us from the truth right now. There is no simple life out there, you won’t find it indulging a romantic cliché, it’s a state of mind.

After all, true calm, the kind of calm you aspire to in seeking simplicity, must be calm amidst the most horrendous crash and clatter of the big city, not the calm you find sitting in the hills lulled by the gentle charms of the wind and the song of the skylark overhead, a fine kind of calm though that is.

But in the city there are parks to sit in. Graveyards to rest awhile. Wildlife is gradually returning. Jays and magpies are not uncommon. You can often hear a tawny owl’s eerie call in the middle of the suburban night.

The observation of nature, through the seasons, has a calming effect. Noticing the first daffodils and tulips coming up in the parks. Making a point of noticing, slowing down to see them, bending down to sample the shy flinching fragrance.

A heron flying overhead with its neck bent back. What a surprise to see that while walking to the shops, drivers fuming in a traffic jam. One sunny day, as spring gives way to summer, sitting with your back against a tree in the Garden of Memoriam, you can’t put your finger on a single thing that bothers you. Life has inexplicably slowed down. There are no racing thoughts in your head, or if there are you’re not paying them much attention. It only lasts a short time. You’re virtually forced to dwell on some problem, which is your problem, dwelling on it, it was nowhere in sight before you did. But at least you know, there are moments of peace in spite of it all.

Let it sink in. It’s all okay, it really is. Listen to the birdsong, it’s so much better than the drone in your head.

So many pressing matters though. They make it look like chasing rainbows to want such peace of mind all the time. Before long we’re irritated by our incapacity to procure these moments of ease at will. Something snaps inside and we let our minds tyrannise us with its querulous racket. We have to ask ourselves questions. It’s the only way we know of getting answers. We know it doesn’t work but what else can we do? We try to fathom, like a dog chasing its own tail, what it is about this greenness before us which can with such ease evoke an eternal serenity with no need to pit our wits against it. An ease which, it goes without saying, now escapes us.

There’s something strangely comfortable in the awkward knobbliness of the tree bark digging into your back. The engaging way the rook struts then hops to keep its distance from a passer-by. The warmth of the sun on the skin. The mystifyingly consoling feeling that there’s nothing better you might be doing, for a while. Right place, right time. Nowhere you need be going, nothing you need be doing, not just now. It won’t last forever, you can’t sit here all night, and yet, the sense it’s nothing to do with just sitting here. It’s everywhere, it follows you around. It’s just easier here, this moment, it doesn’t matter not knowing why.

But then, it passes before you’re ready to have it pass. It doesn’t seem to be everywhere anymore, it’s not even here. It’s like the man who dropped his precious jewel on a beach of pebbles just as the sun was withdrawing its last light and the tide was rushing in. We are convinced it is fundamentally easy and simple, it took nothing to have this peace arise, but the mere conviction cannot re-establish contact with the lost realm. Something tells us, rightly, it comes with experience, and we must learn to live with our inability to be wise before our time.

Then, something new, a twig between your fingers, you picked it out of the grass. Such a fascinating twig, lime green when you peel the skin back. You get it under your nail. For a moment, again, a thought, where have they gone, your worries? So simple, life, when you don’t prod the sore. But it takes real dedication. Like dry sand running through your fingers, there is something both bewildering, and yet not.

The Chinese have a saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The kind of frustration you feel when peace of mind is one moment there next moment gone, and you can’t do anything about it, is like being a step away after a journey of a thousand miles and not being able to take it.

Be determined. Don’t be enticed by superficial ambitions. Discard things that other folk rate as so important. Silence all your worries clamouring to be heard at once. Stop bailing out your sinking rowboat mind.

Is it not vaguely absurd to be craving peace sitting under a tree on a sunny day? To wonder, is everyone else as agitated as I? Do not engage your mind in such idle banter! No longer thirst after outcomes for fulfilment and achievement will follow in your wake. Have no fear, your efforts will be consummated in the attainment of tranquillity. And not in any curtailed way either, confined to scattered vignettes of serenity in communion with nature, evanescent and unreliable. But overall, a far-reaching and grateful understanding of life as an inter-connected whole.

Let’s face it, no-one expects the chance event or encounter that sets their course for years to come and to which they attribute their happiness or success. The day before you meet the person that is right for you and you marry, how could you ever have engineered such a meeting? What a waste of effort to think it will never happen just because you can’t see how it will happen. These things do happen. It’s serendipity. Just because you can’t count on them happening still they do happen. Often when you least expect it. Often when you’ve virtually given up hope of anything ever happening. So nothing’s lost in finding it hard to believe. Sometimes decisions we’ve been agonizing over for weeks are solved by some unforeseen event. You could have safely left it. Not tried to work it out. Many times it’s a good bet just to wait and refrain from mulling it over. You don’t need to have flogged it to death to make an inspired decision.

It’s never a good idea, though, to sit around idly awaiting some encounter to drastically change your life, even if it is likely one will. Sit around, be idle by all means, but only because you find it satisfying in itself. Not because you’ve set your heart on something and you feel it’s a virtual promise that in this way you’ll get it. If there’s something you want, then stoke the fire at least. Help yourself out from time to time. Because waiting on chance is waiting in vain for all that it is likely that chance will prove a firm friend.

Your big break may even come at first in the guise of undeserved misfortune. We have a tendency to suppose misfortune is our lot when it occurs to us. We withdraw into our shells in a sulk. This we mistake for “being philosophical”. Yet is it not true that we have more energy to change ourselves through adversity than we ever have when life is cosy (and often quietly stagnating).

The greatest power to accomplish comes just at the point when you’re ready to give up, call it a day. But if, instead, you decide to carry on anyway, against all the odds, having lost interest in succeeding because you regard it as unlikely now, then this simple instinct to push on a little further takes you beyond the worst of it. Lo and behold, just around the corner, things start looking up, taking a turn for the better and making sense. How rapidly misery gives way to joy. It wasn’t what it seemed. It is as if we knew all along.

Never give up out of sheer desperation, that’s the wrong reason. Only give up if you can calmly see, in the cold light of day, that you are in hot pursuit of a stale aspiration. You no longer want it as you once did. You really aren’t struck by it any more, it’s not because you’ve resigned yourself, reluctantly, to it being out of reach. You may even find yourself wondering why you wanted it in the first place. Then it’s not so much giving up as coming to your senses.

And should you give up, but later find yourself wanting to try again, giving up becomes the prelude to starting better. Although it rarely seems like it at the time, giving up never precludes starting all over again. One has merely given up a poor way of going about it and shed the dead-weight. Don’t be so fond of succeeding. Snap out of it!

Good advice I often give myself, like a sage, but receive like a child throwing a tantrum. But still, for all that I fall short of my own expectations, the whole of my life thus far has been dedicated to just one thing, how best to live.

I started out with a tremendous sense of destiny, everything seemed imminent, I was here to make a difference. But as the years passed by, and my vision of what I could achieve was torn out of my grasp like a tug-of-war rope, I inevitably became dejected, increasingly confined. I wondered, are all people just the same? Cut-down-to-size.

About this time I started up a habit which has remained with me ever since. The practise of continuous and daily reflection. Looking to see how the simplest actions have either burdened me with remorse and disappointment or have blossomed and led to a greater kindness towards others and tolerance for their shortcomings. I began to do things which at first irked me. I kept smiling and made a show of charming manners while being talked at by the most unpleasant individuals who had no thought for anyone but themselves. I no longer tried to get my own back when done a disservice, in that very refusal to be drawn in I do feel any perceived injustice is easily lessened and is soon forgotten entirely. My life got simpler, less browbeaten. In getting rid of my big ideas, I began to understand what life was all about.

If I had a choice, I dare say it would be to have no desires at all. But I cannot just bundle them away and forget all about them. Initially, to address the sense I saw in it, made convincing by the seemingly unanimous verdict of the sayings of antiquity, I cultivated an attitude of indifference as to whether my desires were gratified or not, which I will be the first to admit was utterly contrived. However, just as the stiffness with which we do things new to us gradually gives way to greater ease and spontaneity, and practice makes perfect, my clumsy intention had its jagged edges smoothed by daily reflection upon the vicissitudes of life until I realised why getting what I wanted never turned out as I thought it would do.

No sooner than I got what I wanted, I wanted something better. On fulfilling a wish I had a strange propensity to feel I must have sold myself short in what I wanted if I actually managed to get it. And this in spite of genuinely thinking when first I thought to want it that this was a crazy thing to want, a wild dream plucked from the air without a hope in hell’s chance of seeing the light of day. Now it stands before me, but only for a moment does it quench my thirst before my mind is racing off with the desire to elaborate it. So save for that brief moment of joy it disappears like a mirage as I stretch out my hand for the comfort I feel it owes me. Mine to have, but not to have, not wholeheartedly. I naturally feel cheated.

So what if I thought it would never come true, it has come true in a cruel way. It would have been better if I had never wanted it. And yet, did I not hear myself say, when beyond my wildest dreams it came true, “It’s worth it just for this!”

I have only those words to know it by, could I have known right then that it would evaporate? And that is why I said it? Not just because of the hardship that came before, but because of the hardship which utterly surrounded it. No, it is not my business to argue with how the world is. To yearn for it to be some other way that it quite patently is not. It is mine to take the hint, to be satisfied with an instant of joy without mourning it running through my fingers like dry sand. On the contrary, to see the beauty of that, to enter into a true rapport with the passing moment. Not to brood over what I would rather be doing, like an adolescent, but instead let my goal be to simply rest content no matter what. Not judge one moment against another. That way you end up full of resentments and irresolvable gripes against life. Over and over again mouthing the same old threadbare sentiments: Why does it always have to be like this? When is my life going to change? Why me? Why can’t I have a happy life?

What a drudgery to have to trudge through thoughts like these time and time again. Shoo them away like pigeons gathering about your feet! Don’t let them beguile you. Sling them out as soon as you notice them ganging up on you. Practice does make perfect. Don’t waver, don’t lapse.

It surprises me on looking back that once I thought, for a long time too, how much joy would be enough? As if the world were a matter of piling up joy and sorrow and what really mattered was the hope that the scales would tip, eventually, in the favour of joy. As if then I could accept suffering making no sense at all, I could just dismiss it out of hand, consider it no longer and say I just had to endure it for the joy inbetween and such was the meaning of life. I was even coming to the conclusion, before I was interrupted by a true change of heart, that the experience of joy in the past, regardless of our inability to summon it up and its infrequent appearance, must be accepted as making life worthwhile. And from there it was a short step to saying that no more than the briefest moment of joy in a lifetime of misery must be enough, however hard it might be to accept it day in day out.

I was clutching at straws. It seemed obvious, eventually, even to me, that I had virtually given up on joy triumphing in a fair race. That I had, more or less, come to the conclusion that despondency and dissatisfaction was what I could not fail to notice most about this life. That it was almost certainly my lot, and probably everyone else’s too, for all other people were less bothered than I and did not delve as deeply. Many times I wantonly aggravated despair which was pleading to be ignored. But I could not help myself, I wanted to unmask this spectre that haunted me, it had become my only hope.

I got it into my head that my only way forward was to abandon happiness as being any measure of what made life worthwhile. Give up, in other words, what I clung to as the sole consolation of an otherwise dismal existence. I had a suspicion it was my attachment to it which somehow held me back. Be it a step made out of blind faith or bold curiosity, I rather feel I took it much as does a man choose one side of a crevasse or the other when the earth is at that instant splitting apart beneath his feet.

In the depths of the blackest despair, teetering on the very edge of what I could endure, my mind awash with doubt, like drilling for fire I could not stop when smoke appeared I had to carry on until the tinder took. Desperation knows no better hope than a heartfelt plea to the Invisible.

What wasn’t so clear to me at the time was that what I was effectively doing was quitting the sterile refuge of opposites, wherein you continually play off one against the other. Typified by the trite wisdom that everyone has echoed at some point or other to try to soften the blow, namely that we can only know happiness by virtue of its comparison with sadness. But this is a hollow answer. There is a better answer. It comes when moved to tears out of empathy with the suffering of humanity, but in those tears of sadness equally is the profound love and compassion with which we are all inherently endowed. This, which perpetually eludes us, which is a mystery, and yet, momentarily, erupts in all its sheer simplicity, is most aptly called grace.


First published 1993 in a limited edition of 99 copies, with hand-printed boards, front-matter and endpapers, at The Herculaneum Press, London. (Slightly revised from the first edition to improve a handful of uses of English.)