The pilot-teaser film has had its first previews, and so far the reception has been warm and enthusiastic. ‘Beautiful’, ‘so intriguing’, ‘fabulous music’, ‘extremely atmospheric’, ‘I can’t wait to see the long version’ are some of the comments I collected along the way. The first preview was for my Samatha Buddhist friends in Manchester. We set the screen up to one side of the big golden Buddha, and the room glowed with anticipation. I was surprised and pleased when I heard the audience make little gasps and snorts of recognition at key moments, such as when Sita, the heroine says ‘it’s the nothingness between the somethingness which holds the key’. There were many meditators there, and since meditators spend a lot of time exploring nothingness, it is not a scary thing for these guys, as it is for some people in our highly over-wrought and distracted world. The second preview was for my Welsh-speaking and learning friends, at Brechfa Chapel where I live.
It was prefaced with a talk in Welsh by me about the Mabinogion (be very impressed) and a chunk of story from the Mabinogion by Marion Oughton (be impressed again), a learner-friend. I watched my audience watching and could see that the spell of the film was working on them. Their attention was steady throughout and did not waver. They responded particularly strongly to the atmosphere and the uncanny beauty of the drone shots of my pool. The mythic resonances from the Mabinogion also appealed. They liked the actors, and were the first audience to understand the bits in Welsh! The third preview is still to come: if you live near Brecon come to the George Hotel at 7pm on Monday May 18 where I will be giving a talk for Brecon MIND (Exploring the Edge of Reality)
and showing the film, followed by a discussion, I hope, about creativity, meditation and mental balance. All are welcome and this is a great group of people who put on interesting talks every month. Other news is that I have found a couple of people with skills differing and matching mine who may be going to help me with the next phase: financing and producing the feature film. I won’t name them yet because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I hope very soon there will be a showing in Hay on a big screen, maybe with live music to follow. A London screening will follow soon after that one. If you can’t get to a screening, leave me a message here or on FB and I will send you a special secret link. A crowdfunding campaign will be the next stage, plus the filling in of many forms and the canvassing of more serious investors. There’s a way to go!
Some people have asked me to say more about this film and so I am going to try to do that – without giving away anything which would spoil it for you when you see it. I am especially going to try and avoid analysis: ‘this stands for this and this is what is really happening here, and this whole chunk actually means this.’ There is already too much analysis out there and it is an enemy of storytellers.
So, the story is about a forty-something psychiatrist, Sita, who lives in London and is trying to get money for research into the role of the brain ventricles in mental illness. Sita is half Indian and half Welsh, and in my film is played by Renu Brindle who is a medical woman herself! She is called back to Wales when her uncle Mal dies and finds she has inherited his house – and a mysterious and troubling task. At first reluctant and sceptical, she meets the Welsh builder, Gethin (played by Seiriol Tomos) who has been looking after the house and thinks that he should be Mal’s inheritor. Misunderstanding and anger arise between them and then….
Sita finds out that the tradition which her uncle Mal carried is that of the ‘Children of Don’ (Irish: Tuatha de Danaan, Welsh: Plant Don), the tribe who, in the oldest tales were said to bring magic to these islands (which we now pitifully call ‘The UK’). In particular they brought the four ‘Hallows’ which are the Sword, the Spear, the Cauldron and the Stone. These crop up everywhere in our mythology: think of the ‘stone of Scone’ which the monarch sits on to be crowned, think of Lleu throwing his spear through the rock to kill his rival, Gronw. To me, magic is about understanding the basic principles of creativity, especially how something comes out of nothing. It’s something I have studied and discussed endlessly (yes, often in smoke-filled rooms) with kabbalistic friends, explorers of metaphysical philosophy in Saros/Sareoso groups and Buddhist meditators. You could say the quest to know something about it has haunted and animated my life.
I wanted to weave all this in to a film and it has taken me five years to get to this point, where I am making a short film which will be used to gather finance for a full-length feature. This is only possible because I am working with a group of highly-skilled people who are, actually, magicians in their own way. Cinema is in essence a magical art which seeks to put a spell on its audience. These skilful people (Aes Dana?) have been doing it for love not money so far – not love of me (though there is plenty of affection around) but love of being part of a creative process. “It’s all smoke and mirrors, Mal, cheap magic” says Sita to her uncle in the film. Well below you see a smoke machine over the mirror-lake at Brechfa, ‘smoke and mirrors’ indeed, but without them, we would dwell in nothing forever and never know the joys and pains of somethingness.
I have re-written and re-drafted the screenplay about twenty times. Patient friends have read it and commented, sometimes very candidly (ouch!). I have attended two Ffilm Cymru Wales writers’ labs, which both provided screenwriting mentors who helped me see what needed to be done. Believe me, screenwriting is a hellishly difficult process – and yet, the day you see your words, your painfully crafted scenes, brought to life by actors, you instantly forget all the angst. My real breakthrough came this summer when a fine writer called Rebecca Lenkiewicz said she liked my screenplay (the film she co-wrote, Ida, has had brilliant reviews). Then another of my mentors said he thought I should and could make it as a ‘micro-budget’ feature for £250,000. So that’s what I am going to do.
We have just spent three days in an ancient Welsh manor house (graciously lent us by the inhabitants, Emma Beynon and Roger Capps) telling our story on film, plus one day around Brechfa Pool where I live in a little chapel overlooking the mountains. I think every person involved, from our seven-month pregnant make-up lady, Danielle, to our most distinguished DOP, Richard, felt the magic of that ancient place seep into their bones and out into their work. As we sat in the kitchen at dawn or dusk with a fire flickering in the open fireplace a hush would sometimes fall on us and we could feel infinity pressing up from the earth under our feet. The Children of Don were present then, not in ghostly form, but in us, their inheritors, as modern magicians and storytellers trying to keep an old tradition of understanding reality alive in a new form.
The last morning, with a smoke machine coming and a friend (Tim Browning) of a friend with a drone-camera, about to arrive from far away (God bless him), I lay in bed praying for good weather. I went out at five and felt the soft breath of dawn coming as I looked up into a clear sky. No fog, only stars – Caer Gwydion (The Milky Way), Caer Don (Cassiopeia) and Caer Arianrhod (Corona Borealis.) Yes, there are names for these constellations in our own old tradition, though few people know them now. Later the drone sailed out over the still, glittering water of the pond, tinged with pink, and on through the dancing trees, then soared upwards to see them from high above. Little Sita (played by Isha Gurung, a child of Gurkha parents from Brecon nearby) raced up the hill in her red duffle coat and the drone followed her from above. The force certainly seemed to be with us that day!
Isha’s dad, Bel, brought us home-made momo dumplings to eat. Our youngest crew member, Jordan, must have had at least twelve.
I felt dazed. It was in the can, except that there is no ‘can’ any more, only a ‘stick’ or hard drive. After everyone had gone, I realised we had forgotten one shot, but I didn’t panic. As all film-makers know, there is usually a ‘way round’ it. Magicians have to be flexible and ingenious, don’t they? Isn’t that part of the secret? That, and the right people coming together at the right time and the right place? But I am saying all this very quietly: I don’t want the gods to hear and think we are getting cocky…
Mollie and I went to see ‘Maps to the Stars’ on Friday, directed by David Cronenburg, written by Bruce Wagner. If you need to read a good review, here is one. It’s a dark disturbing, actually revolting tale of incest, greed, lasciviousness and murder. Mollie usually likes dark stuff (she runs the Death Cafe in Hay and is no wimp when it comes to the macabre) but even she was somewhat taken aback by this film. ‘You know’ I said, as we watched the credits roll in the empty cinema, ‘Bruce Wagner was a pal of Carlos Castaneda..’ ‘Oh’ said Mollie. I got home and googled him. Yes, I was right, he wrote a seminal article about Carlos Castaneda when he started to appear in public after a silence, and, Wikipedia informed me, he had got involved with CC and even been the partner of Carol Tiggs! Carol Tiggs? She was the mysterious and potent ‘nagual woman’ in the books, the one who disappeared into the ‘second attention’ for years. Or, in another version, went off to have a couple of kids and have a normal life for a while.
I had to know more about Wagner, so I kept googling and found a long conversation on Sustained Reaction, a Castaneda-critical website about what kind of chap he was, whether he was gay, or bisexual, or a ‘dweep’ or an ok guy. It did my head in, so I had a look at Cronenberg. He lives in Toronto, doesn’t drink or do drugs and seems a decent, morally alive man. All his actors seem to love him. But there was one part of the post-show chat at Cannes which disturbed me: someone asked young (14 year old) Evan Bird, who plays a spoilt, corrupt young movie star in the movie, what he thought when he read the script. The kid coloured up and said the usual stuff about how the script was great but he had wondered how such words could be in a screenplay. He was fourteen years old and when I thought of him being part of this brilliantly told, hellishly graphic tale, I felt a bit sick. Is it right to expose a kid to that kind of stuff? I don’t know.
And, when I ask myself why someone would want to make such a film, I don’t find it easy to answer the question. It’s not like Tarantino’s luridly violent ‘Django Unchained’ which has rage against slavery at its heart, it’s not like ‘The Wire’ or ‘The Sopranos’ which takes you right into the hearts of the characters, good or bad – though no-one is entirely good or bad in these amazing series. It doesn’t seem to have a heart. It is about ‘dead’ people, by which I mean the kind of people who have sacrificed their human hearts to materialism and greed. You wouldn’t like to know any of them. They are already destroyed, already dead – except perhaps the young star, who may still have human elements in his being – but he ends up in a scene in which he ‘marries’ his big sister and they lie down together to die. Heavy stuff, and Cronenburg says its not just about Hollywood, but could be about lots of places. Could it be like mid-Wales, I asked myself? The answer has to be ‘yes’ because there is sex abuse, murder, incest, greed and gory suicide (a lot of that) round here. In the final analysis, I think it was a very provoking and interesting film – but I won’t be recommending it to my recently bereaved friend.
Castaneda was a big hero of mine when I was younger, and I still like some of his books, but his end is shrouded in dark speculation which has taken the sheen off him for many. I sometimes wonder whether, in the end, illness and sexual addiction destroyed his integrity. A depressing thought, but it does look like the world which he and Bruce Wagner shared in West Coast America, is pervaded by a particularly hellish miasma, which, on the whole, we don’t have here in mid Wales. Instead we have fog, we have ‘bright mist’ which Castaneda used as a metaphor for the place where the two sides of the brain meet, which we need to cross before we can fly into infinity as a warrior. Fine words. I wonder what the reality was. I don’t know. Maybe he lost the path with heart and stumbled off into the wastelands? The fog has cleared here now and it’s raining. May all who read this find their path with heart.
I came across this blogpost in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I recommend it to anyone who is thinking about living and dying, or consciousness, or the nature of reality. It really does shed light in a place we tend to make very dark with our fears and fantasies.
I am a faithful admirer of the Welsh language soap, Pobol y Cwm, shown daily on S4C, but this week’s episodes are reaching a level of bloody melodrama which is trying even my forgiving eye – and stomach. It is hard not to snigger as the wonderfully saturnine Richard Lynch (who plays reforming bad boy, Garry Monk) starts dragging the corpse of his rival, Kevin (Iwan Roberts) into hiding as the police buzz at the door and partner, Sheryl (Lisa Victoria), who has clocked Kev with an iron (because he raped her the day before) has hysterics. The actors must be having a hard time taking all this seriously. And this strand is being woven in with another about Macs (Rhys Bidder), raped by a nasty psycho, and now revealed to have Hepatitis B, possibly infecting half the cwm, with whom he has, for one weird reason or another, had sex.
It has made me think about why all soaps seem to go down this particular drain eventually. East Enders is unwatchable now because of it. It is a degeneration of the storytelling which can make soaps so entertaining into something daft and even a bit pornographic. I don’t mind the dark themes – after all human life is full of suffering and we all lose what we love, often as a result of our own bad behaviour – and in some ways soaps are more truthful about our lives than romantic comedies or thrillers. But there are limits! Or rather, there are ways of developing stories without resorting always to the same old melodramatic tropes. I just dread watching tonight’s episode: supposing Kev starts banging in the boot of the car he’s been dumped in, and comes back to life to wreak terrible revenge? I don’t think I can face it.
I have a suggestion for the PyC production team: bring in a new character, a mysterious Tibetan Buddhist (plenty of them in Wales) who wants to set up a Buddhist centre in the village, and transform all their rage into equanimity by teaching them to meditate. The village divides into those who like the idea and those who are against the thought of non-Welsh-speaking immigrants arrogantly displacing the power of the chapel. One of the local girls falls for the lama and he resists the temptation for only so long, and then….oh hang on I am going down the same old road myself! Conflict, battles, hatred, murder, remorse, misery, loss and suffering. It’s true: equanimity just doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to gripping drama. And of course I will watch, just to see how bad it can get.
By popular request (well, Rod actually) here is my poem in Welsh, with an English translation. The ‘canolfan/centre’ mentioned is the Samatha Meditation Centre pictured above. ”Cwtsho’ is a wonderful Welsh and Wenglish word meaning ‘cuddle,embrace’ but with more of a warm, squeezy feeling.
Mae’r coed’n cwtsho’r canolfan yn y cwm,
Yn y niwl mae’r hen dduwiau yn aros – amdanon ni?
Dyn ni crwydro ar rosydd mawr, yn dilyn y ceffel gwyn,
Brwydr dreigiau yn digwydd dan ein traed trwm.
Am beth dyn ni chwylio? Un peth neu bethau gwahannol?
Wyt ti fy mrawd i – neu fy heriwr?
Gweidda’r dderwen: wedi dod mae’r duw glas!
The trees are holding the centre in their arms,
In the mist the old gods wait – for us?
We wander on the wide moor, following the white horse,
And under our heavy feet, the dragons fight.
What are we searching for? The same or different things?
Are you my brother – or my challenger?
The oak shouts out: the blue god has come!
I wrote it on a weekend at Greenstreete, the Samatha Centre, while out walking with my Buddhist friends. It’s about the relationship of the British land and gods with the new ‘gods’ of Buddhism, who have brought marvellous meditation techniques to these islands.
I am ridiculously pleased that this poem has been published in the Welsh learners magazine, Y Ddraig Werdd (it’s on page 16 of the pdf) and is going to be published also in the Samatha Journal.
Once you have been learning T’ai Chi for a year or two, your teacher will normally suggest it is time you did some pushing hands. I teach beginners’ T’ai Chi in the Welsh town of Brecon, and I have found that a high proportion of my students don’t like pushing hands or don’t see the point of it. I wonder if this is a defence mechanism? Pushing Hands is really about intimacy and interaction and most of us are pretty scared of that, I reckon,
Pushing hands is a flowing back and forth movement which you do with a partner. Its object can be to push your partner off her centre, or simply to ‘join’ with her and move together, turning at the waist to deflect the incoming energy. It is more fun if you test each other of course, but it is true that the process can bring up some difficult stuff for people along the way. When I was first learning it, I was partnered by a chap my own age who pushed me rather too strongly for my liking. I would find tears jumping into my eyes when he ‘got’ me. I reckon I was being reminded, through my body, of childhood contests with my brother where feelings of rage on both sides ran pretty high. Fifty years later they surfaced with a gush.
If you have been bullied or abused, then your defences might be challenged by this exercise. On the other hand, it is a safe way to practise interaction and intimacy which might teach us all to do it better. That’s what Andrew Heckert suggested at a recent workshop in London. This charming, talkative Yank, who wore a tweed sports jacket throughout the session, teaches a kind of T’ai Chi where yielding is always preferred over ‘rooting’, a ‘way of weakness’ if you like. Fascinating idea!
It is not just pushy chaps who upset me. Small, wiry, insinuating women I find even worse, snaking their little hands towards my centre. I just want to thrust them away and go and have a cup of tea. What am I so afraid of? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s centuries of ancestral Glaswegian aggression which have built up a pattern of defence-attack in me which is difficult to dismantle. When I do manage not to fight back, either in pushing hands or real life, the results are often extraordinary.
I was on a walk once and hit a path which was blocked by brambles and nettles. I didn’t have a stick with me and noticed that, alongside the path was a field with a couple of horses in it. They looked calm to me, and I reasoned that the owner would not mind me nipping through the field to the gate at the end. So that’s what I did, only, as I neared the gate, I spotted a woman marching towards me from the nearby house. I put a conciliatory smile on my face and began my excuses.
“What makes me mad about people like you…” she began and ran through a litany of complaints about uppity ramblers invading her property. Every so often, when she stopped to draw breath, I would interject:
“Look, I’m your neighbour, I’m really sorry but I don’t want to fall out with you…”
For some reason that day I didn’t feel aggressive. There was something about the woman’s performance of rage which did not convince me: if I had been reviewing her, I would have said she was ‘exaggerated and over the top.’ Finally, after perhaps five minutes of her shouting and me muttering apologies, she suddenly slumped to the ground and started sobbing.
“I can’t get planning permission for my stables,” she bawled. “The bastards won’t listen and our dream is at an end…”
I listened, and, within two minutes we were sitting at her kitchen table having tea with her husband.
Our bodies hold tensions all the way from childhood and when we push hands those tensions emerge and condition the way we move, the way we sense and feel others and their energy. Which is why the lady at the stables tumbled melodramatically to the ground like a tantruming toddler when she broke through to her real pain. It is why, I guess, we fall in love when we encounter someone whose energy mysteriously and deliciously complements and enhances our own. It can be addictive!
“The secret is in relaxing” as many T’ai Chi teachers have said. But how do we learn to do that? It is a long path, but I do think pushing hands is the royal road to dropping fear and anxiety about interaction with other human beings. Therefore I plan to attend again the great pushing hands event run by Adrian Murray at Worcester University at the end of August. This is not about competition, fighting or aggression (though some people there do enjoy a bit of that) but about relaxing, joining, yielding. Sounds good to me.
I love this time of year – the deep, liquorish dark, the clouded brooding nights,and the still, potent star-charged ones. When I lived in London I would often come down to Wales around now, hire a house with friends and walk, meditate, ponder, discuss the meaning of life. Now I live in Wales, it’s easier, especially as I have a bad back this year which has curbed my carousing tendencies. I have been spending a lot of time with a hottie pressed to my back, turning over some big questions.
Christianity – on the wain? Buddhism – on the rise? I feel an affinity with both, and recently have come across two men who symbolise the essence of each of these traditions for me. The first is an anonymous blogger – who blogs as liberationdiaries, providing insight, hints and tips for those (like me) are trying to know the nature of reality. The second is Eben Alexander, an American neurologist whose book, Proof of Heaven, is topping the New York Times bestseller lists. They share a motivation: having had an experience of realisation, enlightenment, they want to share what they know with others, to help us along the road to truth.
Eben Alexander succumbed to an attack of bacterial meningitis and hung on the brink of death for a week, his brain bathed in pus. While most of his fore-brain was knocked out he had a series of dazzling visions of both higher and lower realities. You can get a taste of them in his interview with Oprah. The message he returned with was one of hope and comfort: ‘you are loved, there is nothing to fear’ and a sense of the overwhelmingly vast scale of the whole reality enterprise, infused in every part by a loving God. He comes over as a sincere and unpretentious man who has no evangelical agenda, and has dropped his reductivist-scientific views after this Road to Damascus experience.
The Buddhist Blogger feels like a friend by now as I have asked him lots of questions on his blog and he has given me full and thoughtful replies. You can have a look at our chat here. After his realisation, he says he completely lost any sense of a personal self and now feels part of a oneness. When I asked him ‘what about love?’ he replied that you don’t feel ‘love’ for something which feels like part of yourself. ‘Would you feel love for your arm or your knee?’
So – are heaven and nibbana the same place – or not? For myself, I was feeling torn between the visionary ecstatic in me and the calm, cool meditator, between an intense feeling of love for the creator and the creation and an awareness that the suffering which human life brings to all of us can only be relieved by achieving detachment and equanimity. As Nai Boonman, who takes the Buddhist retreats I attend, mischievously puts it: ‘you want happiness or you want tranquillity? You choose!’
So it was that on Friday evening I set off to visit friends, Rachel and Toby in the remote Llantony valley. They had invited local priest, Father R, and I was looking forward to discussing my thoughts with him. It was a wild windy night and had been raining all day. My friend Val had volunteered to drive us both, since my twingeing back made switchbacking and reversing (when meeting another vehicle) down flooded and narrow lanes difficult if not dangerous. After bucketting through many teeming flood-pools we finally arrived at the ancient cottage in the remotest part of this secret valley, close to Llantony Abbey to a warm welcome in front of a log fire. (You can stay there too – they have holiday lets.) In spite of my reservations about priests, especially anglo-catholic ones (‘I smell priests!’ my Scottish grannie once said as we entered a holiday cottage), I warmed to Father R, who shared his licquorice paper roll-ups with me. But, when after the meal, I broached the subject of Buddhism, he displayed no enthusiasm, but instead leapt up and headed for the piano.
We sat in the radiant midwinter dark of the old parlour, Val curled up asleep on the sofa with a blissed out lurcher leaning up against her, while Father R played four short pieces on the slightly out of tune piano. Each note burst into my mind like a firework, spraying sparks of joy into the room. Everyone was smiling, including the dog. The priest played with precision and passion, making those tunes feel like they were coming direct from the mind of God. The room was on fire with the Christmas spirit of love and reconciliation, the child of light being born in the darkness, the end of conflict, the coming of the Prince of Peace. I didn’t want it to stop, ever, but he was anxious to get home to his beloved dogs, and soon took his leave.
I’m not going to draw any pat conclusions from this experience. These midwinter mysteries can only be understood by something beyond the ratiocinating, argumentative mind. I think all true Christians and Buddhists would agree on that. I shall be celebrating both Christmas Day and the solstice on the 21st because – oh yes – I am a pagan too.
I have just returned from a three-week meditation course in beautiful, green, rain-sodden Wales. One evening, while we were drinking tea after our practice session, someone said: “just think, one of our number could be a stream-enterer. How wonderful! It could be any of us.” We looked around. ‘I think it’s P’ someone said. The genial P, who had been doing more than his share of table-clearing and washing-up, demurred. I asked what ‘stream entry’ was and was told that once you have one clear glimpse of nibbana (infelicitously translated as ‘extinction’ but don’t be put off by that) you enter the stream which goes all the way to enlightenment/realisation and will be there within seven lifetimes. Also some of the worst ‘defilements’ fall away, and no longer hinder you on your journey.
When I got home, I typed ‘stream entry’ into Google and was swept into a torrent of helpful explanation from persons styling themselves ‘Buddhist Geeks’. These guys strip away the Pali tags and the references to scripture and talk about meditation and the rest in ordinary language. They apply to the subtle complexities of Buddhist philosophy the same Geek-ish intelligence and ingenuity which ordinary Geeks apply to cyber-stuff. It was very….enlightening. One chap shows how the vipassana (insight-based) ‘nanas’ equate with the samatha (calm-based) ‘jhanas’. Helpful tips are offered for gaining stream-entry in this lifetime, practical no-nonsense technical tips, which certainly made sense to me. One writer opined that there was no reason why an ordinary person who was prepared to spend quite a few hours on his/her meditation cushion should not get there. There was even the question asked: could video-games lead to enlightenment? Suddenly I had a glimpse, not of nibbana, but of a world where one in ten people you see in the supermarket would be a stream-enterer, or even a realised being. Is this possible? What difference would it make to the world? Would it make it a better place? Or… since Buddhists see the world as a place of suffering, maybe the effect would be to weaken the hold of the world and its materialist bias on us and push the whole human race towards the desirable extinction of nibbana?
However… George Gurdjieff, the Armenian sage who is a hero of mine, claimed that there is only a certain quantity of the higher influences we need to help us awaken in the world at any one time, the implication being that most of us will have to stay asleep. This is not the spirit of Buddhism which appears as a clear, science-friendly doctrine, democratic, basically sane and optimistic, offering signposts to a path open to everybody. Which is right?
But hey! This is the kind of journalistic-polarised-argumentative thinking which Buddhist retreats help me leave behind. The truth is: I don’t know and maybe it doesn’t matter. What’s clear is that Buddhism, its techniques and its philosophy are penetrating to the heart of nominally Christian Britain and offering a path of development and insight to all who care to apply their bottom to a cushion, and make a stab at stilling the chattering mind. Christians and atheists are learning to meditate too. We are all learning more about mind, not just from those know-all, TV neuroscientists, but directly, for ourselves! For me, this is the important thing.
So thanks to those generous Buddhist teachers at Samatha and thanks to the Buddhist Geeks too. May you all be well and happy and free from suffering!