When I was about 17 I wrote this strange little poem:
“Here we are,” said the little boy to the Star:
“We live on air and Sun’s red wine
And we glow like the flowers in the morning time.”
The Star, which was solemn and old,
Replied in a voice that was distant and cold.
“What we buy with what we’ve earned
Is never so nice as the slice of life
That is given for free
When the world has turned.”
I reproduce it here not so you can admire my poetry. I rarely write poetry and generally don’t like it. There’s already too much bad poetry in the world, so mostly I refrain from adding to it.
I was under the influence of W.B. Yeats at the time, and the poem bears some resemblance to some of Yeats’ early work: a little bit mystical, a little bit otherworldly. I don’t know where it came from, nor what it means. It just appeared in my brain one day, in almost that exact form, and I’ve never had reason to alter it. It was written down at the time, but I lost the text. I know it from memory. It’s like a golden thread sewn into the tapestry of my life.
The reason I’m showing it is that over the years I’ve noticed how true it is to the way I’ve lived my life. That’s particularly so of the last stanza, the words of the Star. That’s the reason it has stayed with me. Whenever I acquire something for nothing that has significance, those words come back to me:
“What we buy with what we’ve earned
Is never so nice as the slice of life
That is given for free
When the world has turned.”
I don’t like shopping. I don’t like décor. I don’t like design. I rarely buy anything new. My world is almost entirely made up of things which have come to me by accident, given to me, or which I’ve chanced upon serendipitously, and have taken on a special meaning as a consequence.
So it is with my shrine. Almost all of it consists of hand-me-downs and lucky acquisitions. It sits in my office. It’s made of a set cheap MDF shelves which I got from Argos. On the bottom shelves are copies of my books, plus a shelf of notebooks which I hope to fill one day. The shrine takes up the rest of the bookcase: the top four shelves.
The central object is a lost-wax, bronze reproduction of the Indian deity, Shiva, which was left to me by my friend Bapu after he died. Other images include: an icon of the Madonna and Child; an image of St Joseph the New, which I got from the Orthodox Cathedral in Timișoara, Romania; a four-leafed clover, stuck on a piece of hand-painted card with tape, which a friend sent to me; and a painting of a tree by my ex-wife. There are lots of polished stones, lapidary being one of my hobbies. Also an old clock which was in my bedroom as a child. It doesn’t work and is set permanently at 18 minutes past four. Bapu makes two appearances as there is a £23 note, designed by Jonathan Harris, the money burning guy, which came for free with his magazine, Burning Issue. The likeness on the note is Bapu.
Every object or image has a meaning, a history. I can look at each object and remember where it came from: how it came to me, under what circumstances, what I was doing at the time. Take the image of St Joseph. I was on holiday, staying with friends in Timișoara when I found it. It was towards the end of my stay. My Romanian friend, Aurelia, decided to take me to the cathedral. She’s Orthodox. The cathedral is huge, ornately and richly-decorated, with lots of gold on display and a gigantic altarpiece. Aurelia told me that there was a miracle in the place: the bones of St Joseph, which had remained uncorrupted after his death, gave off the odor of perfume, she said. We went over to look at the relic, kept in a glass-topped ossuary, three feet long by two feet across. The bones of the saint are shrouded in massive folds of ornate cloth in a darkened corner of the cathedral. You can’t see very much. It just looks like a skull wrapped in cloth. I remember the eyes and the glitter of jewels. People were queuing up to look so I was unable to stay for long. They were genuflecting and bowing to the box as they approached it. I didn’t notice the perfume smell, but if I had I would’ve attributed it to the priests putting perfume on the box, not anything supernatural. There was a plaque nearby with information on it. It said that St Joseph’s saint’s day was the 15thof September. A shiver ran through me. My son’s named Joseph and he was born on the 15thof September. I took it as a significant moment. I picked up a postcard from a nearby rack, and brought it home with me. It’s this that stands on my shrine.
All of this is only meaningful to me. There must be millions of people named Joseph, many of them born on the 15th of September. The significance doesn’t lie in the outward set of circumstances, but in my reaction to them: to that shiver that ran through my body. It was at this moment that a kind of circuit was completed: a random set of coincidences achieving recognition in my nervous system. That moment is unique. It exists in me as something profoundly my own. The postcard I brought back commemorates that. It has no objective value in the outside word, but it’s priceless to me.
We live in two worlds, the psychic and the physic: the world of mind and the world of matter, the subjective and the objective. The two worlds interpenetrate each other, so we don’t really know where one begins and the other ends. Everything we see, hear, smell, touch and taste consists of signals in the brain which we interpret as reality. It’s not reality: it’s a model of reality. We carry it around with us, and it helps us navigate the objective world without falling off cliffs or crashing into walls. There’s certainly a real world, which can do us physical harm if we don’t pay attention to it, it’s just that we don’t really know what it is, what it looks like, or what its purpose is. All of that’s created within the circuitry of our brains.
That’s what the shrine reminds me of. It acts as a focus for my attention, as a way of looking beyond the limitations of what I can experience with my senses, to the possibility of transcendence. I look and talk to it. I talk to it as if it’s a living being standing in front of me. There’s a ritual attached to this. Every morning I light two candles. One is beneath an incense diffuser in which I’ll put a few drops of frankincense oil. There are two small Victorian bottles which I found on a dump in my early-20s. I’ll pick flowers to put in them. I’ll stand there and, depending how I feel, will either put my hands together in the attitude of prayer, or hold my hands palm upwards, as if reading from a book. The first position is how Christians pray. The second is how Muslims pray. Sometimes I’ll shift from one position to the next as I’m ecumenical when it comes to attitudes of prayer.
This is precisely what I’m doing. I’m praying. This might sound strange. I’m an agnostic. But the act of prayer, for me, isn’t an act of belief. It’s a practice. It’s something that I do. I see it as a compliment to meditation. Meditation is silent prayer. Prayer is voiced meditation. What I’m trying to do is to reach beyond myself, both internally and externally: beyond the little me of my limited ego, to something larger and more complete.
I spend most of my time thinking: planning the future, remembering the past. Most of it is completely pointless. One thought leads on to another and another, and very soon I find I’m a million miles away, reconstructing some conversation from the past, augmenting it to my own advantage, so that I come out on top. Either that or I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to cook this evening, or what I’ve got to do next week or next month or next year. I’m not the only one who does this.
Prayer is my antidote. Prayer is sacralized thought. Instead of being engaged in that endless cycle of half-conscious verbiage, I try to be fully awake, as awake as I can be. I’ll speak to my objects as if they represent a collective personality. Shiva is at the heart of it, that dynamic, four-armed god dancing on a corpse in a circle of fire, dreadlocks streaming. I’ll talk to him about what I want from my life, what’s important to me. I’m not asking for favors. I don’t expect my prayers to be answered. Let’s face it: there’s no one there to answer them. Really, I’m talking to myself. I’m the only person capable of answering my prayers. I’m making conscious what otherwise might remain unconscious.
You may ask how I started doing this, how I started praying to a god I don’t believe in? You can read about it here.
One of the things I talk about in that story is my friend, the Marxist I shared a flat with at the time. I lived in acute embarrassment that he might come home and catch me praying. I made a joke: “The only thing worse than being caught praying by a Marxist would be to be caught masturbating by your Mum.” That made me laugh. It was only later that I thought I ought to tell him that I’d written about him. I showed him the story and he laughed too. But then he told me a secret. He told me he too prayed. He prayed secretly in the bathroom every night, behind a locked door. He was an alcoholic and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Prayer is part of their practice.
Here is the 12 steps program, as described on the AA website:
—We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
—Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
—Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
—Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
—Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
—Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
—Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
—Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
—Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
—Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
—Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
—Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The important phrase is “God as we understood Him.” As a Marxist, my friend didn’t believe in a Christian God, but he was acting as if all this was true in order to help combat his alcoholism. You can act as if there’s a greater power, even if you don’t believe this greater power is God. Perhaps the greater power for an alcoholic is the person you become once you’ve put a stop to your destructive behavior. Maybe you’re praying to your own future self. Or maybe my friend was praying to the figure of Marx, that gnarled old prophet of the proletarian future.
The word “God” is difficult in any case. Whose “God” are we talking about exactly? Every culture has a different conception of who or what “God” might be. Is God a Father, a Mother, a Son or a Daughter, or all four at the same time? Is God Shiva or Allah or Jehovah or Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit? Is God the original, indivisible First Mind, of which your mind is but a momentary fragment? Let’s just say that all of us can conceive of something higher than ourselves, something bigger, something grander, some being who’s a part of us who can see further than we see, who has a greater perspective on our lives.
I call this “As-if-icity.” You’re acting as if something is true: as if someone can hear your prayers, even if you are not 100 percent sure. It’s a gamble. So what? Life’s a gamble. There’s nothing you can do that, under some circumstances, might not lead you to disaster. There’s no step you can take that might not one day lead you to stepping on a rift in the fabric of reality and cast you headlong into the abyss. No one knows what’s going to happen next. We can only hope the world remains as it is for as long as we are alive, that Earth isn’t struck by some random asteroid, or that a madman with his finger on the button doesn’t set off a nuclear apocalypse because he has a bad headache that day.
Robert Anton Wilson (quoting Edmund Husserl) said All perception is a gamble: “We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think that this is reality. In philosophy that is called naïve realism. ‘What I perceive is reality.’ And philosophers have refuted naïve realism every century for the last twenty-five hundred years starting with Buddha & Plato, and yet most people still act on the basis of naive realism.”
So that is what I’m doing every morning in my ritual space: I’m making a calculated gamble. I’m acting as if this rag-tag collection of memories and objects have some meaning, and that, through them, I can contact a higher mind, something beyond myself. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s worth the risk. What have I got to lose? Maybe it’s the Star of my youthful poem I’m talking to. The poem is a dialogue between my childhood self and that distant Other, who dictated those words to me. Maybe one day he’ll answer my prayers.