A Funny Old Monk

My 26 year old son is clearly a perceptive fellow and he hit the nail on the head when describing his father as “a funny old monk”.

I have been monkish since childhood but my journey really began after spitting out convention 30 years ago and disappearing into a black hole.

Wandering lost over the past 30 years, I began my explorations by reading the mystics. William James was a profound influence as was Evelyn Underhill. Followed by so many others.

I have not read any of that stuff in more recent years. I have lived by experience more than words. Years living in the mountains of Switzerland and on the bleak beaches of Northern France. Snowboarding and skiing and long, long wild walks in the wind and the elements. Practicing everything I could usefully lay my hands on from hypnosis to meditation, from music to strenuous physical exercise.

Days spent in contemplation in the churches of renaissance Venice and elsewhere. An endless search for the divine, for meaning in a storm of deafening and meaningless noise. Years spent wearing the dark lens of pessimism, despite the beauty all around me.

But today I was struck in the deepest and most profound manner by a post on Mystical Experiences of Reality by my friend Keith Hancock.

He referred to a paper called “Spirituality and the Transformation of Consciousness” by Merv Dickinson.

Just reading the paper was enough to give me the sort of experience described as “peak” by Abraham Maslow. I recognized each and every word in that paper. Mr Dickinson could have written it just for me.

I will leave you to read the paper for yourselves should you so choose, but it was startling to see my own life over the past 30 years described with such unerring accuracy.

Let me make one thing clear: I do not confuse my journey in any sense with a descent into “goodness”. Or, worse, an ascent. I have never had any desire to be Mother Teresa, since, firstly I have never much fancied a sex change and secondly I just don’t believe the world works in that way. I’m sure the old biddy did a splendid job with the needy in Calcutta and that her canonization was richly deserved. But no amount of Mother Teresa clones will make much difference to an unenlightened world. Or to the world’s poor and needy.

What I believe will (or would) make a difference is a shift in perception. A radical and widespread alteration of consciousness.

Dickinson puts it this way. Consciousness has two orthogonal planes: run of the mill “anthill” consciousness which we all develop during childhood and adolescence and then the sort of gnosis one perceives during those moments of enlightenment, when the nature of reality seems to become clear to us.

If we are lucky, we may get occasional glimpses through the veil. As we progress in life, some of us who are seeking an altered perception find we are granted increasing access to that other way of being. We begin to feel we are living at an intersection between the two modes of consciousness and it becomes easier to look upon the world and its ways in a kinder and more benign fashion.

It also becomes far easier to be kind to ourselves as we increasingly feel that we have discovered the way. That we no longer need to ask the “Questions”. The black lens of pessimism is replaced by an altogether rosier and more optimistic hue.

Because, it really is a kind of blindness the way some of us are forced to live. Throughout much of the history of this blog I have taken a rather despairing view of the human ant heap, but I see now that any condemnation of our behavior was naive and wrong.

We can’t help it – it just “is”. Mostly, we can not see beyond the day to day struggle for existence. We behave the way we do through knowing no better. We evolved to survive and that is what ordinary consciousness teaches us to do, come what may. So that most of us are determined to “climb the greasy pole” at any cost, as Benjamin Disraeli so aptly put it when he was elected as Prime Minister.

Those who are granted a glimpse through the curtain to a different reality can see that it need not be always thus. But that until the majority of us can see that different reality, no amount of Mother Teresa lookalikes will manage to turn this place into a heaven on earth. My hope is that day may arrive.

Looking back to the beginning of my long, long journey I can see that I was a man in a hurry. Reality was not to be served up on a dinner plate. Not to me at any rate, although I was always puzzled that it happened that way to some. My friend Keith for instance with his spontaneous revelations. And those who received sudden conversion on the road to Damascus or elsewhere. After considering a koan or two perhaps.

No amount of reading, none of my practices really achieved very much over the years. Partly perhaps because I was still consumed by the pursuit of wealth. My climb up the greasy pole.

Very recently the scales seemed to fall from my eyes much more regularly. It has been rather like an ascent through the Stygian gloom of heavy cloud cover into glorious clear blue skies and sunlight. Carried there by my own wings rather than the metal sarcophagus of modern air travel.

I think it has been partly because I have given in, or given up perhaps. I think the endless isolation has undoubtedly helped, intensified as it has been this year. The atmosphere of apocalypse has been cathartic and educational.

I am increasingly inclined to let go. And I am increasingly able to do just that. I am more often to be found at that crossroad, that junction between the two orthogonal modes of being.

It is a comfortable place to be. I think I will remain there.

Oh and by the way, I’m the weird old chap on the left. The equally weird nutter on the right was someone we met at the Norman keep in Dover one day. Claimed he lived there and that the date was sometime in 1100. My son found it hard to tell the difference between us.


  1. I hadn’t known of Evelyn Underhill. Although it isn’t her most famous book, it was easy to find and order her “Practical Mysticism. A Little Book for Normal People (1914) ” from an ‘antikvarait’ in Uppsala, Sweden. I have downloaded the file of “Spiritual Practice and the Transformation of Consciousness”. Thanks very much. Otherwise, your account of your life travels and the lessons learned (so far), as I’ve written to you before, are generally, not always specifically, in consonance with mine (so far).


    1. I am happy to hear that. Underhill majors on Christian Mystics but of course there is plenty of material elsewhere on those of other flavours. These past few months have been very odd. The greatly increased peace and the increasing access to the “other” state of consciousness is most welcome to me. I hope my progress continues And yours! I seem to recall my version of Underhill’s work was “Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness” but unfortunately it is in our house in London so I can’t check. That article by Dickinson was a most timely acquisition for me as I said to Keith Hancock. Really quite odd how very strongly I can relate to it now. A few years back I would have WANTED to relate to it but would have been unable to claim such experiences as my own.


      1. I understood the book you mentioned was as you say. I got this one because it was local and not costly. Maybe after I read it I will want the more famous one.


      2. Ah! Understood! My copy is a battered old thing (rather like me really) and dated from shortly after it was written. I seem to recall buying it quite by chance in a second hand book shop in London. It was a purchase I did not regret. I remember reading it cover to cover down in Devon on holiday one year and hoping the tales were “true”.


      1. Are you saying the lack of socks puts people off becoming monks? I must say, if I had such gentlemanly slippers as those ornamenting your feet I doubt I could give them up either …



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