09 June 2010

Back to blogging

Yes, after more than a year of silence, it is time to write again, though not in quite the old style – seems there is just not enough of the journalist left in me to carry on churning out idiosyncratic opinions or reflections on this that and the other. So whatever form this blog may take from now on, the communications will probably be shorter and simpler, but perhaps more frequent than before.

The main reason for reactivating the blog is to draw attention to the more recent mandalas on display in the ‘Newer visions’ gallery on the website. Please do take a look – the works include the two most elaborate designs yet created.

Living currents took about 135 hours from the drawing of the underlying grid right through all the drawing and painting to the final adjustments on the computer and the finishing touch of the Photoshop gradient. It’s one of only two mandalas where I referred to any kind of visual resource while I was doing the drawing; I couldn’t remember exactly what an octopus – or indeed certain other sea creatures – looked like, so I briefly studied a few images of them. Even so, in the end, I made most of them up, more or less. In the same way, I checked roughly how the anatomy of birds works by looking at photos of them when I was drawing Birds who have flown some years ago.

Actually, there is a third mandala which forced me to refer to a few of my photos, now I come to think of it. Fortress of faith, the other extremely intricate new design, is very loosely related to the complex multi-gated entrance to Jaisalmer fort, with a few sidelong glances from time to time at other shots of fanciful architecture in Rajasthan or elsewhere. Sadly, this mandala cannot really be appreciated at all at the scale at which it can be reproduced on this website. For the first time, it is a design so detailed, so fiddly, that I realised I would almost certainly ruin it if I attempted to add colour, so I have left the original piece in the form of a pen and ink drawing – thus far, about 124 hours work. At some stage, though, I would like to experiment with creating a coloured version, using the scanned image and working in Photoshop

I don’t remember referring to pictures of butterflies when I drew the ones in All one energy – so they may or may not satisfy the scientifically minded. I rather wish I could find similar specimens in nature – the biggest butterflies here in Pune are very large, but not purple; they are black, red and white, and flop about like large flying silk hankies, though I don’t often see one. This mandala was another fairly detailed piece of work, but took much less time than the other two at about 60 hours, divided fairly equally between the drawing and the painting. Any adjustments in Photoshop and the creation of the gradient backdrop are not included in this tally.

Regrettably, the small scale at which they appear in the website can give only a vague flavour of all three of these larger designs. Printed at three foot by three foot, Living currents has an impact that cannot possibly be conveyed by the small reproduction shown here. This particular piece, and also the earlier Drunkenly along the Sufi path of love, have now been scanned at such high resolution that they could be printed up to six metres across before starting to lose definition (both the original painted mandalas are about 40cm in diameter). How nice it would be to see them reproduced at even half this size…

The remaining two mandalas in the new gallery are small pieces, both of them begun as demonstrations in informal mandala workshops, and completed in three or four afternoons each.

The other reason for starting to use the blog again is the increasingly pressing need to help the mandalas go out into the world, to make their presence known to a wider audience.

Perhaps anyone who reads these words and has any ideas or suggestions as to shops, therapy clinics, centres hosting meditation, yoga, etc, hotels and spas, interior design companies and any other places where the mandalas might be well received, could send relevant info and contact details to me at shashi@mandalascapes.com. I would be extremely grateful for any such input, or indeed any other innovative marketing ideas. I am also interested in any openings or inspirational connections for reproducing the mandalas on, for example, plates, or t-shirts or silk squares, or mouse mats or table mats or ceramic tiles, or… there are so many things that could be done with the designs that it is hard to know where or how to begin, so a few concrete contacts would be very useful.

There is already a project underway to create a mandala divination deck. I have completed the design part of this, but still need to adapt a number of the texts that accompany the mandalas to make them better suited to this purpose.

Finally, this is to announce that there will be a selling exhibition of the mandalas in Amsterdam from Monday 18 October through to Monday 29 November 2010. High-quality giclée prints will be on display at Himalaya, the well-known esoteric/New Age bookshop and café/gallery on busy Warmoesstraat, in the heart of Amsterdam’s tourist district, a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station.

09 January 2009

Costume dramas

Imagine a typical Indian street scene, alive with women in flowing, brilliantly hued and patterned saris, or salwar kameez with their long, floating duputtas – no two alike - and at least some of the men in traditional long kurta pajama, or even in dhotis, their heads splendidly wrapped in bright orange or shocking pink turbans. A riotous feast for the eyes.

Now strip them all of their picture-book attire and strait-jacket them instead into the dreary dress of the modern West. Suddenly all the joy and vitality has gone from the picture, hasn’t it? The butterflies have become beetles and bugs. Instantly, those dancing rainbows of vibrant colour have leached out of the scene, and the graceful swirls of easy movement, played out in the folds of loose, flowing drapery are gone. In their place is a near-monochrome horde of lumpy body shapes and the stilted gestures of people in tight or bizarrely-fitting shirts and jackets, trousers and skirts.

The first scene is one of the most fundamental charms of living here, the second is a sobering glimpse of how things may look in the future India, if it carries on in its current headlong lust for all things western. It is also a reminder of why I feel so sensually starved these days in the sophisticatedly jaded cities of Europe.

This realisation first struck me with full force as I was crossing Blackfriars Bridge on my way to work one cool summer morning in London some years ago. It had started earlier as I was walking along the legendary peacock-strutting ground that is the King’s Road in Chelsea. I gradually became aware that not a single person in sight was wearing anything other than black, blue, grey and various indeterminate shades ranging from white to beige. No peacocks at all. Just an occasional flash of bright red or pale pink and the odd note of olive, sage or bottle green, maroon or brown to leaven the mix.

I walked for 15 minutes without spotting any other colour (apart from my own bright green outfit and one orange t-shirt). At Sloane Square, I entered the Underground and, in all the thronging crowds down there, no cheery oases of colour met my eyes, which were beginning to feel hungry, a little starved of life and savour. Emerging again onto Blackfriars Bridge, I found myself engulfed by marching armies in the same monochrome uniform.

Then it dawned on me that not just the clothes, but all the cars hurtling past me, as well as all the buildings on the London skyline, confirmed to this depressed colour range. I was standing in a vast panorama that felt as if someone had turned the saturation right down. But why?

There is certainly a view prevalent in western culture that increasing sophistication means increasingly subtle, or dull, washed-out colours - leave all those shocking shades to the barbarians, whose eyes and tastes are as uneducated as children’s. This is obvious in the pages of the interiors magazines for which I have often worked when in London.

Here, neutral tones have long been considered the normal, adaptive choice, especially among the aspirational, while vividly coloured homes are usually the preserve of the eccentric or bohemian. Some colour may slip in from time to time, but always in accord with the season’s diktat of a few, sometimes bizarrely combined shades – lime green and chocolate seemed in favour a year or so back, but if you preferred to offset your lime green with, say, viridian, you may have struggled to find the goods.

The situation is the same in the boutiques. The vast mass of mass-produced clothing available seems to exist in a similarly reduced palette. Again, every season, a few brighter or more quirky shades find their way into the mix, but in proportionally small quantities compared with the navy, black, white, beige and grey that predominate.

To live so much immersed in only these uninspiring, life-denying colours surely saps the life force, subtly, dully draining it away, day in day out. And this deadening influence must be all the more pervasive when inflicted on people often already starved of the revitalising effects of greenery and flowers and sunshine for many months of the year.

What happens to the souls of those who are so deprived of the warm joy of orange, the fresh coolness of green, the sumptuousness of purple, the sunny openness of yellow? What energy does the person who always dresses in monochrome shades draw in from such clothes? How easy is to feel joyous and positive towards existence when it always appears in shades of grey and neutrals, and when one’s own clothing further reflects this drabness? (For an instant antidote to such colour starvation, you can always visit the mandala gallery.)

It is as if there is a subtle conspiracy to make Westerners even more neurotic and depressed through such sensory deprivation. Either this, or the monochrome obsession is being generated by a collective unconscious that is overflowing with negative, life-repressing energy.

Sadly, because this dreary uniform has become so universal, most Westerners seem reluctant to cope with the extra attention they feel they would attract by wearing clothes in brighter colours. So they forgo the pleasure of the fresh feeling that comes from dressing in vivid green for fear of the stares that might also come their way.

This is surely not a worry that crosses the mind of even the shyest, most retiring Indian woman, as all of them, as well as some of the men, are wearing every brilliant shade available – fabric shops sell almost every perceptible hue to enable the women to match their clothing perfectly. And the result is a bright, sunny collective rainbow of contrasting colours, patterns and textures that is a joy to behold.

There are two further components to this Indian sartorial superiority, components that Western designers seem to have suppressed, by accident or design, from most modern looks – the concepts of grace or elegance and comfort. The sari, the salwar kameez and the pajama kurta are near-perfect blends of form and function, their loose, flowing shapes generally flatter a wide range of body types, while assuring the wearer complete ease of movement.

Even a bulky woman can look graceful in a sari. And there is no comparison at all between the elegance and appeal of a man dressed in the long tunic and soft trousers of a pajama kurta and the same man packed into a Western business suit or jeans and t-shirt. A young woman in salwar kameez has a gentleness and fluidity about her form and her movements that she will never achieve in tight-fitting jeans and skimpy top.

It sometimes seems as if Western designers take a malicious pleasure in forcing the fashion-conscious to wear clothes that make a mockery of the human body and its normal shape, movement and functioning. They accentuate curves where they shouldn’t, lengthen parts that would be better shortened, reveal bumps that are better covered over and divide the body up into ungainly chunks. Many common garments constrain the body’s natural processes and movement in various ways. Wearing trouser and skirts that restrict the breathing and/or the normal gait all day long, or a top that makes it difficult to stretch the arms freely, must take its toll on the psyche, just as the dearth of colours does.

Osho often commented on the fact that the tight, uncomfortable uniforms favoured by armies and police forces serve to maximise the aggressive tendencies of these agents of law and order. If so, then the same could perhaps be said of those who go to work in suits, and it may be that western society depends on such subliminal inputs of aggression to keep itself going. Certainly, I find it almost impossible any more to tolerate clothing that constrains my movements in any way at all – it presents a persistent low-level irritation to which I have become highly sensitive.

How wonderful it would be if, rather than the new India rushing to adopt the uncomfortable clothing of the West, as it is currently doing, the mirror could be reversed. In a remarkable outbreak of sanity, the West would then look to the East. Out would go the absurd and dreary dark suit and tie and the inelegant jeans and t-shirt, and in would come a new concern for grace and comfort, together with a joyous openness to colour.

Imagine a typical Western convention or assembly – all dark suits and stiff, wooden gestures. Now release all the participants from their drab uniform and pour soft, flowing, brightly hued clothing over them. See their bodies relax and their faces break into smiles as they respond to the subtle change in their bodily sensations and the vibrational shift brought on by the flood of colour and lightness. Perhaps they might even feel positive and open enough to reach a peaceable conclusion to their negotiations.

05 December 2008

Chaos or cosmos?

Just as the fish can have no conception of the water that sustains him until he is pulled out of it, so do we normally remain entirely submerged within the construction of reality propagated by the society and culture in which we live, unaware of the limits it imposes on our vision. The fish may come to know all the details of his environment, but he will never detect the water itself. In the same way, the deepest foundations of our daily reality escape our awareness, as they encompass and enclose all 360º of our vision, permeating every concept, every aspect of our worldview, but remaining invisible in themselves.

And as the pond-dwelling fish who assumes that his pond must be the whole universe would find the vast and limitless ocean inconceivable, so we tend to believe that the worldview we are given supplies us with the entire range of possible reality, and to judge all speculation that passes beyond its limits as fanciful – the product of a dreaming or a deluded mind.

So drugged are we by the pond water that even though for most of us there are a number of personal experiences and other aspects of life that at least imply the existence of an ocean, we prefer to push them aside. After all, the possibility of an ocean is rather frightening for a pond-dweller.

The pond water in which modern societies all over the planet lie submerged has quite a strong flavour and texture; the flavour is randomness and the texture is chaos. Underlying all the discourses current within society is the unquestioned and unquestionable assumption that reality is at root a product of randomness, founded on chance and chaotic in texture. This is the first principle of belief. Any speculation that potentially has a different principle embedded in it is ultimately heretical, and can only be entertained as an amusing oddity.

A friend of mine, a true believer, has even gone so far as to personify this effectively divine principle of randomness as a god called Reg, an absurdist prankster whom she invokes at those many moments when life somehow beggars belief in the non-accidental nature of its unfolding. At least she is quite conscious about her upside-down sort of belief system.

But Reg is not just my friend’s own private deity. He is a very useful device indeed, much invoked in every kind of social discourse. With his help, potentially transcendent mysteries of all kinds are safely reduced to mere flukes, each one a product of the cosmic materialist randomness. He also does sterling service when invoked as a means or evading responsibility for any and every worldly misdemeanour.

There are many official versions of events that happen in the world that seem far from satisfying in their explanation of anomalous details, but which invoke the ultimate randomness and chaotic nature of everything, including human action and inaction, to head off any further investigation. After all, such randomness is in effect divine intervention, and who can question the will of Reg? What heretic dares to deny his omnipotence? So Reg has become the last resort of the contemporary rogue.

Seeking deeper understanding of the human condition through science, economics, politics, philosophy, psychology? Reg is lurking there, at the bottom of all the finest theories and insights. For Reg is the bottom line, the ultimate dead end in which all ideas in our global pond must finally seek absolution. But the anti-hero Reg is a poor leader, and reality lived by his lights tends to grow more and more chaotic, more and more incoherent.

And there are times for almost everyone when it is hard to hold on to this orthodoxy of randomness. Life seems to escape from Reg’s jurisdiction. In the face of overwhelmingly meaningful or bizarrely timed or fortuitous events or accidents in our lives, only a very strong belief in Reg can bend us back into the mainstream. Only a strong conviction about his quirky sense of humour can help to make sense of a belief system that is, just possibly, nonsensical...

For there are so many ‘oddities’ – the consistent and repeated accounts of UFOs, the instances of individuals who remember past lives, so many striking and implausible coincidences, astonishing feats of second sight or telepathy or healing, or any number of other so-called psychic and esoteric phenomena, the perennial and universally consistent wisdom of the buddhas (see the mandalas in the Mystic circles and Meditative spaces galleries for some echoes of this), as well as personal mystical experiences that reveal a quite different nature to reality. So many oddities that if we put them all together, the official materialist, random structure of reality struggles to hold off their collective implications.

The impact on us of such anomalies is like when the fish jumps out of the water. For a moment, he feels air on his scales, and thus becomes aware of the water in which he lives. Perhaps he glimpses also that his pond is not infinite in expanse. But to the water he will return, because he has no certainty about the ocean either.

And those who would point to the existence of any pattern in these anomalies, suggesting the presence of some coherent and systematic agency at work, are readily dismissed as primitive or naïve, weak-minded and unable to live in such a cold hard chaos of a cosmos, like pond fish obsessed by the myth of the ocean.

But, looked at objectively, to persist in labelling even the most strikingly non-random-seeming happenings as the result of mere chance, or chaos, or cock-up, starts to appear as willfully blind and primitive as the resistance of the late medieval Christian church to the findings of science. Such blind faith is, however, inevitable while the water of our pond remains unchanged.

Still, there are undercurrents in the pond, water that flows in from some hidden source, bringing heretical waves of a different vision. This heresy is both very ancient and ever new, as it resurfaces across a wide range of human inquiry and experience. It proposes that beneath the apparent and ‘official’ randomness lies a deeper order. Even in physics, the neo-Böhmians are playing with the idea of a deeper-lying, implicate order that would give coherence to the phenomena currently judged random by mainstream science. For the mystics, there has never been any question that Reg and his randomness are a modern myth.

Nothing that seems to be a random occurrence actually is. There is a pattern and a purpose behind any and every event. In the eyes of existence, there is no such thing as chance. Nothing happens for no reason. All things are caused by the will of existence, so they occur at the right time and in the right place, although this rightness lies far beyond our minds’ capacity to understand it.

If only we are ready to accept what comes rather than remaining attached to our own projected outcomes and visions for life, the keys that will help us to grow to our full potential are always there in what existence gives to us. We think we know best what is right for us, but existence sees the whole picture, and we have only our small window on the world. And what existence wants for every one of us is true inner growth, which is usually not quite the same as our own cravings.

Such an existence is not heartless and indifferent – except for those who choose to see it in this way. It is constantly offering us experiences that can help us to become aware of the deeper patterns in life (see Drunkenly along the Sufi path of love). This is the insight of the mystics – that at every level of existence, everything unfolds according to the natural law of what is necessary.

Living by such an understanding is actually less escapist than invoking cold, callous Reg. It means accepting that we collectively create the world we deserve, by the way that we respond to all these wake-up calls – when we ignore them, they tend to come back with greater force. It means realising that everything we do has an impact on the whole pattern of existence, as the natural law is constantly responding to us and adjusting things accordingly. When we fight with life, rather than flowing with it, our resistance often creates yet more discord (see The troubled seas of mind). The world we see around us has not happened as the result of randomness and chaos. At a deeper level, we have created this apparent chaos, by our increasing abandonment of any responsibility for it.

How different a world lived from such an understanding would soon become. If we all take responsibility for what happens to us, interpret what happens to us in such a constructive way, everything changes. And if we recognise that our negativity and abandonment to fate begets more negativity and more 'fate', through the working of the natural law, then we can change the direction of that same natural law.

In truth, it seems likely that anyone visiting a mandala website already lives with this understanding of the world – it is, after all, the very essence of the mandala concept that the cosmos is a cosmos, not a chaos. Yet, there seemed a need to place these ideas somewhere in the website, in case they can bring a little more clarity into the bigger picture, and where the mandalas fit into it. To experience the serenity and clarity of this way of interpreting reality, view any of the mandalas in this website...

06 November 2008

The curse of coriander

While working on a mandala sitting at the desk on my balcony in Pune yesterday, I began to be aware of an insidious assault on my senses that is not at all uncommon in India. In fact it is one of the daily hazards of my existence here. It wasn’t the unhealthy miasma that drifts up from the river during the hours of darkness, nor the acrid smoke from one of the succession of small bonfires lit by watchmen all over the city, nor even the fumes from the ever-rising tide of traffic.

No – what was causing me so much discomfort would actually be a tonic to many an appetite. Someone must have been washing something under the tap in the yard below – something green and leafy and horribly horribly pungent. Great sickening waves of an all-too familiar stench were wafting up to me, making me want to run for unpolluted air.

The same stench lies in wait for me if I advance too far into the vegetable shop without due precaution. To get cucumbers or beans or aubergines, I have to take a lungful of air from the relatively fresher front part of the shop then hold my breath while I dive in quickly to grab what I need from the back. For, piled high in lethal doses on the end shelf are…great bunches of fresh coriander. It sits there, emitting an odour so awful, so obscene that, if other people perceived it the way I do, it would surely be kept a very long way indeed from any environment linked with food, or indeed unprotected noses.

Going out for a meal is even more of a challenge – for me and for the kitchen staff. To order a dish in India without its habitual dusting of fresh coriander is to ask a small miracle of the chef. He will have to come out of automatic pilot for long enough to desist from that final sprinkling of the herb which, to him, signifies a dish is ready to serve. This can very seldom be achieved at the first attempt, even if the waiter actually remembers to make such a stunningly disturbing request when the order is passed to the kitchen.

Invariably, when caught out in this way, the cook’s first recourse will be to stir the offending coriander into the rest of the dish so I can no longer see it, but this won’t wash with me at all. I can detect the stuff a mile off. Only a total remake will do.

And this is just the last part of the ordering ordeal. Before this, I have to establish that there is at least one dish not infected by coriander at the more systemic level of the sauce itself. Fortunately, there are a few classic Indian sauces that function quite happily without it, and I have made it my business to know which they are – although I am never safe from the whims of individual chefs in this respect.

But keeping the foul, gag-inducing presence of coriander out of my food is by no means the only challenge I face when ordering a meal; there are other enemies lurking in the finest Indian cuisine. At least as repellent as coriander (for me) is cumin. It is a constant amazement to me that this choking, dirty, positively unhygienic pollutant could ever have been considered edible, let alone an exquisite flavouring. Like coriander, cumin strikes me as so thuggishly invasive that it strangles and over-rides all other savours as soon as it is added to a dish, rendering otherwise good food inedible. There is also the heavy chemical contamination caused by coconut paste, and the lighter but barely less poisonous soiling inflicted by mustard seeds and a few other ingredients I have never quite managed to identify with certainty.

I have of course tried to train my palate to be less sensitive to these various outrages on it. It is not easy living in India with such aversions. As far as I know, there is not a single Indian street snack that is not laced with either coriander or cumin or both, and the thali meals that most people live on here are invariably flavoured with them and several lesser offenders. As I cannot make special orders for these ready-prepared items, my freedom of movement can be greatly compromised at times. Nine years of this inconvenience have failed to impress themselves on my unreformed palate however, and there are those who suspect I am just not trying hard enough.

So it was some relief to me when a fellow coriander martyr alerted me to the existence of a website containing a reference to some interesting scientific research. Apparently, such aversions may be hardwired and beyond our ability to do much to modify them. It seems that those of us who feel such a strong revulsion to coriander are highly sensitive to certain chemicals within it that others do not perceive at all. This makes a lot of sense, as I simply cannot believe that anyone could actually like the odour, still less voluntarily savour the substance that is coriander for me. Ditto cumin. Ditto coconut paste.

And what was this wondrous website? www.ihatecilantro.com. It seems I am not the only one to have found that the increasing incursion of coriander (cilantro is its US name) into once-safe dishes is threatening to render almost all restaurant food off-limits. Accounts from 2000 fellow-sufferers on this hilarious website detail as many encounters with the horrible herb. All follow the same general pattern.

Within the first mouthful or two of some coveted dish, the coriander has revealed itself in all its shocking pungency, to the revulsion and bewilderment of the diner. Dishes have been sent back to the kitchen with comments about dirty dishwater, soap and other pollutants having found their way into the mix. These complaints of course draw a blank, and it may be some while before the hapless sufferer realises it is the coriander that destroyed the meal. And of course nobody else understands the problem.

We sufferers have every cause for concern, as the presence of coriander in Thai or Indian cuisine is one thing – presumably it has always been there (I have actually met two or three Indian corianderphobes, though I’m not at all sure how they survived into adulthood) – but it is also being smuggled into once-safe western dishes. Westerners who clearly taste and smell something very different from what we do seem so delighted by it that it (and cumin) has become a regular scourge – of otherwise wholesome wholefoods in particular.

So although I shall probably have to go on living with my aversions [perhaps a look at the mandalas from The world of mind gallery would be appropriate in such a mind-oriented context], it is of some comfort to me to know that others out there are crusading against the curse that is coriander. I wonder if anyone has created an anti-cumin website yet...

07 October 2008

Whirling beyond the pale

Quite possibly nobody has ever practised Sufi whirling so near the flashing, beeping heart of Mammon, in such close proximity to a cash machine. And equally possibly it will be a long time before anyone does so again. For the hilarious yet somewhat sobering experience of dancing like a dervish in the glassy London premises of an international media corporation has amply demonstrated that the working world is not quite ready for whirling. But at least the incident has finally brought forth a new blog.

A recent first-ever UK performance of whirling, to open an exhibition of my mandalas at Moving Arts Base in Islington, London, had me casting around for a space in which to do a spot of practice. I was pleasantly surprised when the facilities team of the building in which I sometimes work readily granted me permission to whirl after hours on the third-floor mezzanine, close to where the ATM does a steady trade.

When the working day was safely done, I went to the Ladies and metamorphosed into a flaming red and silver-bedecked whirling dervish, then strolled out onto the third floor mezzanine and began to whirl. With spectacular English cool, the trickle of workers who happened to need to use the ATM carefully navigated their way to the machine past my somewhat dramatic and rapidly spinning presence, without looking in my direction at all. And scurried off again, as far as I could tell, without a backward glance.

When I finally stopped (it turned out to be a magnificent space in which to whirl), I bowed down in the traditional way and then sat, eyes closed, on the floor for several minutes. My silent sitting was soon disturbed by the approach of two men in black suits asking if I was OK. On hearing that I felt absolutely fine, they reported that a number of people had seen me and were worried about me. Failing to grasp that it was not just the fact that I was now sitting with my eyes closed near the ATM, but the whole of my performance that had been troubling people, I reassured the security men that I always finished my dance in this manner, and that I felt very well indeed. Looking quite scared, they backed off hurriedly.

The next evening, after about 20 minutes of blissful and peaceful whirling, I suddenly heard a loud 'Excuse me' booming forth from somewhere in the upper stories of the building’s inner atrium. I dutifully stopped and looked up to see that my interlocutor was a large man in a green jumper, although several other people, leaning over balconies on various floors, were gawping curiously at the exchange to come. 'Can I ask you what you are doing?' he hollered down to me. I was tempted to reply that I was casting a spell on the ATM so that it would shortly empty its contents into my cleverly adapted skirt, whereupon I would run away with all the cash, but I said simply that I was practising some dancing for a performance I would soon be giving. 'Only, people saw you last night, too, and we was wondering what you was doing,' he continued, clearly unconvinced by my answer. I told him I'd been given official permission to do this and if it was OK with him I would now continue.

Five minutes later, I heard footsteps heading my way, then another peremptory 'Excuse me', and saw another man in a black suit trying to attract my attention. I stopped and he, too, asked: 'What are you doing?' I again said I was practising, citing the name of the Facilities manager who had given the go-ahead for my unusual rehearsal space, in an attempt to reassure him. 'Only, people saw you last night, too, and they were all asking what you were doing,' he said, repetitively.

The record seemed completely stuck just there. What on earth could a woman be doing, spinning round in small circles in an insanely bright red costume on the third floor of their office building, a little too close to the ATM for comfort? The enquiry couldn't go any deeper than this. It was such an indigestible fact that there seemed no room at all for any meaningful further investigation – what was this dance? was it difficult/enjoyable to do? where did I learn it? and so on, seemed beyond the pale. I said that I really didn't mean to offend anyone and I hoped I could now continue. The black suit fell silent and walked off, visibly non-plussed.

I strongly suspect that all those so troubled by my presence, or so concerned for my welfare, had one idea at the back of their minds – that I was a possibly dangerously deranged individual who was in some way threatening the nice orderly ordinariness of their office space. Either that, or my whirling was some elaborate ploy to enable me to steal their cash card details. No one seemed to have got as far as noticing that what I was doing was actually quite skillful and can be very enjoyable to watch. All were apparently stuck at the level of an anomalous activity that didn't fit into any of their boxes.

On the third evening of my whirling presence after hours, the process was again repeated, with a number of nervous-looking souls scuttling up to use the ATM before disappearing rapidly. Soon enough, I sensed I was about to be accosted once more. Just when I had reached something approaching cruising speed, so was spinning too fast to see anything at all clearly, and generating a fair amount of noise from the flapping of my skirt, I thought I glimpsed an approaching black suit – a female one this time – and heard a rather quiet ‘excuse me’. As I was so much in my stride, however, I decided to feign unawareness and carry on whirling. If she really wanted to speak to me, she could shout louder. She didn’t – I realised after a moment that she had quietly retreated, so I ended my whirling in peace, with a deep bow and a time spent sitting silently with my eyes closed.

After a few minutes of this, however, I felt someone near me, heard the now-familiar ‘Excuse me, are you OK? and opened my eyes to see a black suit squatting next to me. ‘Yes, I’m very well, thank you. Why, shouldn’t I be?’ ‘Er, no, it’s just that...’ ‘It’s just that everyone’s been coming up to you as they leave the building to tell you there’s a mad woman doing something weird by the cash machine?’ ‘Well, yes,’ he admitted. ‘And my colleague came and spoke to you, and...’ I conceded that I thought maybe someone had come but I couldn’t be quite sure, as I was turning so fast, then assured the suit that I really wasn’t all that mad, and that I was finding it funny how scared of me people seemed to be. We parted on quite good terms, having agreed I should warn the security desk before the next evening’s session.

So I did. And that evening, I was left in peace, despite a fairly constant traffic of visitors to the cash machine, all of whom continued to give me a wide berth, ignoring me scrupulously as they held conversations on their mobiles by the ATM or chatted with each other. The same was true the evening after that. I even thought once I may just possibly have heard a quiet wolf whistle, though perhaps it wasn’t intended for me at all.

On the last evening of my little experiment, I whirled away undisturbed, until I became aware of a camera flashing somewhere in the vicinity. A few moments later, a photographer came into view, shooting flashes off in an uninhibited fashion, including directly into my face. He never attempted to communicate with me at all – just stole away with his amusing trophy of shots of the mad whirling woman by the ATM. I hope he enjoys them as much as I have enjoyed whirling in the unexpectedly wonderful whirling space that the 3rd floor mezzanine turned out to be. But I doubt I’ll be receiving any requests for an encore...

03 July 2008

Mountain mandalas

Back in the UK for what seems to be another cool, greyish summer. Not before venturing up to McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala in the south-western reaches of Himalaya, to visit what may perhaps be the current world capital of the mandala, and to experience life lived in the vertical for a while. How radically different in subtle psychological ways, as well as the obvious physical ones, a life spent in locations where almost every step is either up or down must be.

There must be many souls on the planet even today who have never lived a day that was not imbued with the looming presence of the wilderness towering above them, blocking out the sky with a realm that seemed a home to gods and/or other mysterious beings. Their every waking hour has been coloured by this constant reminder of the relative puniness of humanity in the face of indomitable nature and those other invisible powers. Ever over their small affairs, their fragile perches/purchase upon the precipice, a brooding mass keeps watch, as much a part of their background awareness as the sun that rises and sets beyond it, or the ever-dancing clouds that furl and unfurl around it.

Such mountain dwellers may have no conception of a journey that is not balanced on a narrow ledge that clings to the shoulders of rocky giants for safety, or that strikes out across a knife-edge above the abyss. Never a step taken without some awareness, for the gulf yawns below the unwary. What must it be like to know only a world in which the way to the next village loops and zigzags and winds back and forth for interminable treacherous hours even when the destination remains tantalisingly visible just across the valley?

Those of us conditioned by life on the level can get away with so much more impatience, and careless haste in our actions, so much more arrogance about our place in the greater picture. The land seems ours for the taking, easily and quickly traversed, while our actions are unobserved by anything greater than ourselves.

Certainly, the fruit of Tibetan Buddhist tradition that is the mandala, much in evidence in McLeod Ganj today, requires exceptional levels of patience, steadfastness and humility of its makers. And undoubtedly, Tibetan Buddhist culture ripened among landscapes yet more challenging, far more rugged, far less lush and green than the beautiful forested hills above Dharamsala that inspired these reflections on the influence of the landscape. Nonetheless, the many Tibetans who have found a home in the dramatically precipitous setting of McLeod Ganj, overlooked by a few rather junior snowy Himalayan peaks, perhaps feel at least an echo of the awesome if chilly magnificence of their mountainous homeland.

Given the abominable and outrageous situation in Tibet these days, McLeod Ganj may also be the current world centre for mandala-making. Vast, elaborate and richly coloured painted mandalas adorn the walls of the chorten in the Dalai Lama’s headquarters in exile at one end of the Ganj. Here and in nearby monasteries, the monks sometimes create stunning sand mandalas, as well as much smaller designs made in butter. Many of the shops selling Tibetan cultural artefacts that line the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj display small hand-painted renditions of traditional mandalas. These fabulously detailed works, and many more kept behind the scenes, are sold for a fraction of the price that the work involved in making them should surely be worth. Classes in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist art of mandala painting are also available.

Although these works, so closely bound up with the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism are only very distant cousins of the mandalas in this website, they share some of the same symbolic underpinning and functional significance (see the About mandalas page) and certainly reflect a similar love of detail and decoration. Many of them represent an idealised temple in which every element has a precise symbolism, and most are based around four-way symmetry, as are Meditation in the marketplace, and, to some extent, Heavenly kharabaat and One night in spring in this website. When working with a fully figurative design, particularly one featuring architecture, four-point symmetry allows for a more naturalistic-looking effect than higher symmetries can do.

Sitting here in the UK surrounded by the original painted versions of the above-mentioned mandalas, it seems they – and many of the others, too – will forever be to some extent strangers in this land. Could it be that their distant roots in a culture grown in those dramatically austere mountainscapes keep them just a little exiled from the gently undulating lush leafiness of Surrey?

17 April 2008

Perfect worlds

The former travel journalist in me bears some of the responsibility that falls on all who ply this dubious trade for unthinkingly serving up every last unspoiled corner of the earth and her cultures to the ravages of appetites greedy for exotic new pleasures. So the particular spot in which I recently found a more harmonious and wholesome reality than any I have yet experienced on the planet should remain concealed behind a light veil of imprecision.

This perfect place was, though, a magical combination of spectacular, otherworldly scenery, lushly abundant nature, a wealth of traces of the vanished magnificence of a great empire, a peaceable, relaxed local population and a vast, resonant silence and tranquility. Fairytale landscapes dotted with peaceful ruins stretched improbably away under the flaming colours and fantastical cloud formations of fabulous sunsets. Birds and monkeys chattered idly through sparkling days freshened by luxuriant vegetation and lazily flowing waters.

Even the stones gathered from beside the picture-book river were more perfect in substance, form and colour than their counterparts out in the ‘ordinary’ world. The splendour of this location has long worked its subtle magic on those who have inhabited it to create a rare sense of harmony. This in turn has perhaps led to the formation of such beautiful stones, not so much in geological time, but in a time concurrent with and interwoven with the local mental space. Nature surely cannot meld itself into such a harmonious state in places where the surrounding vibration is not so fine, so wholesome – in places charged with the ugly, disturbing energies of environmental devastation, aggression, unhappiness, pollution, greed and so on.

It is something like this subtle refinement of reality through a true harmony between the human spirit and its environment that is evoked in mandalas such as Heavenly kharabaat, One night in spring and Meditation in the marketplace - reality with the rough edges smoothed a little to create this sense of a more fully flavoured and richly rounded world. When a higher level of caring and conscious integration between the human spirit and its surroundings (and other humans, too) is achieved, then surely this kind of perfection becomes manifest.

The work of Masaru Emoto, cited in About beauty and healing, reflects a similar vision for the potential transformation of our earthly existence – a recognition of the power that lies within the human mind to effect this total renewal of a reality that is, after all, ultimately also a creation of that same human mind. It is through this power buried within each of us that the world really would be transformed by meditation, if everyone were to embrace it wholeheartedly and work to clean all minds of the junk that cannot but be reflected outside in the environments in which we live. This is how we can heal the world from the inside out.

There is no doubt that spending time in spots like my magical retreat affords a powerful reminder of the magnificence of our earthly home, and it can help to bring about a renewal, a reconnection with a deeper sense of awe and wonder at life, without which no transformation of either inner or outer reality is possible. Experiencing a strong outer silence, where this is available, can help to connect us with the inner silence that is meditation, too.

But there is a difference between this conscious inner nourishment and the greedy guzzling of earthly paradises for short-term and superficial new experiences that fuels large sections of the travel industry. The restless mind’s perpetual thirst for something new, and the profit the industry generates by catering for this appetite, together create an oppressive and often blindly destructive force. As a previously unexploited corner of the world is discovered, the inward rush of tourists soon changes its very nature, often irrevocably.

Why this insatiable greed for new locations, new experiences? Because we need them perhaps. When we no longer believe that we will be transported to paradise after we die, and the rest of our lives is often mundane, they afford us a brief escape into a fairytale or paradise world. These excursions into other people’s realities can certainly revive flagging spirits and help to put things into a healthier, more relativist perspective. But they do not have a lasting impact on our lives. We visit one, then a few months later, book a trip to another. And the photographs and home movies pile up uncontrollably. Yet revisiting these does not bring lasting contentment. It is not enough.

This is where our mind-driven society cannot help us further. Until the understanding dawns that hunting for paradise out here in the world is not the answer, we may well go on trotting across the globe, helping to wear it out – for as long as this luxury is available to us. But it is well to remember that the key to the happiness we seek does not ultimately lie in such external stimulation. It is only when we turn inwards to explore the undiscovered places within us that a deeper contentment can be found. This contentment does not depend on any first-hand experience of exotically ‘other’ locations. It doesn’t depend on anything external at all.