a world of things

sycamore 1“Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.” [Matsuo Bashō 1644 –1694]

OLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: It’s the last day, I’m leaving, this is it… the end – no more departures and arrivals I’m leaving now for the very last time. The house is to be sold, the rooms are empty, all remaining things ready to be put into boxes for the recycling people to collect after I’m gone. Right now it’s all arranged in two groups: a) stuff to be given away and, b) ‘stuff that I can’t let go of YET’… still some reluctance, lingering over things I want to keep. Gazing fondly at a pile of books, a framed picture, pondering, hesitation, attachment… but how will I get all this into checked-in luggage for the flight to Thailand? Some time spent considering this but, impossible, let’s face it. In the end it’s a decision pushed along by the momentum of leaving; there’s a car coming for me in the afternoon. Out of time, ok, pack up and leave… and I move everything into a), the stuff-I’m-giving-away group. That settles it.

But I’m tugged back… did I just do that? Hands reach out to take the stuff back again. Pause for a moment to think about it and everything stops, emptiness, there’s nothing there… thought is an elaborated construct built in a landscape of no-thingness. An awareness event turns up out of nowhere, the kind of thing that couldn’t happen in any other circumstance: let someone else have these things. It’s the letting-go thing, the generosity of easing, the release of all that tight energy – giving it all away, giving it all back to the world, returning to the context of how it all arose in the first place. I stop for a moment to think about how that feels, but there’s no thought, everything is still wonderfully clear and completely empty. There’s a world of things, then there’s not.

Suddenly it feels like everything I’ve been holding on to doesn’t matter anymore, and that’s okay. The loss is only there if I ‘think’ it into being. Sit down, close my eyes and everything  becomes invisible. Feel the pressure points, lower back, seat in chair, feet on floor, elbows on the arm rests – but no body, no head – it occurs to me that sometimes the universe doesn’t exist… takes my breath away. Only a curious intensity in the place where the thought used to be contained; something that really never happened… years and years of nurturing a dream about something that wasn’t there.

Last thing to do is bless the rooms, hands held in anjali in that small dwelling: Wishing in gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease… There’s a clear sense of closure. Going through the door… I’ve been in this house 36 years and it’s gone in a flash. Standing outside, blinking in the bright daylight, surprised to discover it’s a just a day like any other day. A last look inside, sunlight extends in from the doorway… goodbye little house! Pull the door closed, lock. Get in taxi, door slam. We’re off across the landscape…

‘When this exists, that comes to be. With the arising of this, that arises. When this does not exist, that does not come to be. With the cessation of this, that ceases.’ Samyutta Nikaya 12.6


Many thanks to Jeff for: ‘stuff that I can’t let go of YET’ – source: Leaving Lexington. Photo: a stand-alone Sycamore tree at the top of the hill

the light of memory

12052011016eOLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: [post written in New Delhi] The old house is sold. A printout of the email from the lawyer signed, enveloped, stamped and sent by DHL to England, 4000 miles away. A small packet of A4 paper folded once, bearing all the correct documentation, tucked away in a bundle, squeezed into an aircraft for a night and a day. At the other end, registered, signed-for and unlocked, unpacked, seals broken, it’s confirmed by officials, checked, stamped and placed in a folder and delivered by a guy on a motorbike to an office in East Anglia. Smoothened out in the bright white electric light of a cold January morning (by a mature female hand probably, cosmetics, manicured nails and a silver ring), and there’s my signature, exposed for all to see; idiosyncratic squiggle recognised by law as being ‘me’ saying ‘yes’ I agree to the foregoing; I relinquish, renounce, I have read and understood the above-mentioned; box ticked, it’s all yours… sayonara, goodbye little house that sheltered me for 36 years, my small cave, hollow, burrow in the side of a hill. Everything there that was ‘me’ is fading away, even as we speak, already feels like I was never there. It’s like a death… all that remains is a memory of so many comings and goings, arrivals/departures, and in the 36 years I was there I never stayed longer than 3 months. There are only the journals left; words written in old notebooks, hard-to-read writing in ball-point pen etched into the surface of old yellowed paper:

OCTOBER 10, 2012: Today is the last day. Getting ready for the flight to Thailand… that familiar feeling of departures is in the air. This time tomorrow I will not be here. I’ll not be in a room that has split floor boards stacked in a cupboard next to the fireplace in the sharp coldness before the fire is lit. Yes, at least I’ll be away from this stunningly cold house where I have to wear a coat indoors, going around with kindling, paper and matches first thing in the morning, rushing to get the fire lit, the flames going and some heat started up. I notice a certain… vigour in everything that seems to be necessary to keep warm. Words come out in steamy puffs of breath, and a kind of gasping breathlessness: haaaaah! It’s cold.

There’s a fragrance of cleaning products around the house. Yesterday was a day of hoover and broom and the place is clean now, pity I’ll not be here to appreciate it. Everything gets a major clean-up a couple of days before I go. It’s always like this; then, on the last morning, I have breakfast, wash out my coffee cup, place it on the edge of the sink; wash my breakfast plate and leave it to dry in the dish-rack – it’ll have plenty time to dry…. The house is locked up, sealed like a time capsule until I return; into the taxi and I’m gone. The house remains as I left it, exactly like this, for countless days and nights and afternoons and early mornings, sun peeps in the window, nobody at home; all through winter, all through Spring and then one day I come back, open the door, break through the spider webs, trip over the mountain of junk mail and enter into this same moment enclosed here now. Same cup sitting on the edge of the sink, same plate in the dish-rack. And the whole house says: Hello, how’ve you been?

And now I know I’ll never be back there again. Stirring the ashes of a fire gone out, a life I think I wanted but never had – maybe I should have tried harder… maybe it was meant to be the way it is. Maybe I’ll go there one day with my Thai niece M – we’ll drive down that road and I’ll show her the house where Toong-Ting used to live. Slow down and stop, look at the old place for a moment and drive on. It’ll all be ancient history by then …

“The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all…. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.” [Eugène Ionesco]


nostalgia for winter

back of shedOLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: Writing this in New Delhi, the winter chill has a familiarity; the cold-nose-sniffing days of UK winters long ago at the old house in East Anglia, before I had proper heating installed. A massive quantity of firewood; they cut down some Elms that had fallen over and all I had to do was chop it up with a long-handled axe. Thus, entire days were spent swinging axe, volumes of breathy vapour air then sitting by the fire. Everything that had to be done indoors was done there, next to the fire. A cup of Oolong tea placed for convenience on the edge of the hearth… cold fingers on warm porcelain.

And one day in particular, here in this low ceilinged house, staring at the flames, thinking I’ll have to go to the woodshed with the wheelbarrow again to get more logs. Walk through to the back door, not focused on anything but the task ahead, then for some reason there’s a joyful little skip at the wrong moment and I whack my head on the oak crossbeam protruding dangerously from the kitchen ceiling – the karma of wood fighting back… more like a sound than a feeling; an audible BONK! Fall to the floor, wow! Hands rise up and hold the head. It’s not an immediate pain; it’s an investigatory, how bad is it this time?

Stay there for a moment, inward searching directionalised towards the perceived centre where ‘self’ resides; awareness of the vulnerability of ‘head’ situated at the top of the body; eyes looking out, a world seen as if through a window at the front of the skull. Pause for a moment and consider the phenomenon of ‘me’ and the body I inhabit as a curious plurality; it’s not an ‘I’, it’s a ‘we’. I’m issuing commands and body just does what I tell it; addressing oneself as if ‘I’ were someone else: hmmm, the blunt-force trauma and brutality of the present moment… let it pass – get busy with something. Go upstairs and see if there’s a pair of gloves I can wear. The body obediently goes there because I’ve just told it do that.

Stumbles along, gets to the staircase then up, step by step, plod, plod, plod. Get the gloves and stand there for a moment, looking through this ‘window’ as if from a position inside the skull, seeing things at eye-level, then down the length of the body to my feet standing on the step, and the steps below that, leading down, and down to the ground floor… plod, plod, plod, downstairs again; it seems like a long way.

shed with logsOut along the garden to the wood shed and, instead of just gathering a few logs and going back, I decide to cut up some more. WHACK, axe cuts through wood in a pleasing way. WHACK… so what’s to be done about this low headroom situation? WHACK… again and again I’m caught by it, even though I know it’s there. WHACK… return to ‘the plan’: excavate the floor and lower the level by one step to create more headroom. WHACK… isn’t it satisfying how the wood splits and falls to either side of the axe blade, forming two piles of equal number. WHACK… everything comes in twos, and there’s this feeling of companionship; that good friend, the body. It has a familiar feel to it; the aches, pains, grumbles and squeaks. The wheelbarrow filled, I push it back to the fireside and the rest of the afternoon is spent planning how to dig up the floor…

“I am and the ‘I’ that I am, is aware that I am. This knowing of our own being – its knowing of itself – is the most familiar, intimate and obvious fact of experience and is shared by all.” [Rupert Spira]


Third post in the series about the house in East Anglia I had for 36 years. Click on the links to follow the thread: house on a hill, and presence.


back stairsOLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: Aunt Liz was an unusual person because she didn’t speak much, lived like a recluse and it’s only recently I realized she may have been Bipolar – it was so long ago, nobody knew about it then. I was often away and when I came back, she wouldn’t speak to me. The neighbours would tell me she was sometimes socially active, then after a few days she’d go back to her silence and not speak to anyone at all for months. Aunt Liz lived in that house for 23 years. She was alone, preferred to be alone and at the age of 85, she died alone. Bottles of milk left on her doorstep for two days, the police forced the back door and found her sitting on the sofa. It was 1989, I was in Japan, didn’t know it had happened until a relative called me on the phone (no emails in those days) and in a screeching, long-distance voice told me about it; said she’d inherited Aunt Liz’s house and was going to sell it – or did I want to buy it? Yes I did, so we got the paperwork done, I had the contractor go in and do renovations, but it was more than a year by the time I got back to the house.

Everything had changed of course, fresh paint, new plaster; the emptiness of a newly renovated house and nothing left to remind me of Aunt Liz. She was just not there any more – something about it strangely familiar; she was never ‘there’. So many times in the past I’d ring her bell, but no answer. Then I’d be in my house next door, listening for sounds, holding my breath and maybe I’d hear the clink of a cup or plate, and know she was there. Mostly she was simply a presence, so silent sometimes I’d forget about her completely.

That time I came back from Japan, the first thing I did was look for something to use as a floor cushion and sit for a few minutes of meditation in the place where her sofa used to be. This is where she would read her newspaper, do her knitting, watch the six o’clock news … this is where she died. Maybe it was on a day like this; the quietness, the sound of the birds in the trees all around, an ordinary day, and she paused in a quiet moment and listened to the birds; the same birds I’m listening to now, some of them their descendants. Maybe she contemplated this sound as I’m doing now, and had the same awareness of the hearing mechanism that carries the sound.

Get up and open all the windows, landscape reaching out to the horizon; hazy blue sky, the smell of the sea. The sound of birds enters the room, tiny fragments of a hundred melodies merged together in a flow of incidental harmony; no beginning, no middle, no end; blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows and in the quiet intervals, the distant mewing of gulls flying in from the sea.

Whatever living beings there may be;
whether they are weak or strong,
omitting none,
the great or the mighty,
medium, short or small,
the seen and the unseen,
those living near and far away,
those born and to-be-born —
may all beings be at ease.

[Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness]


The second post on the house on a hill – click the link for the first post.
Photo shows the back staircase built during the renovation and a new window in the wall opposite so the light can enter the otherwise dark kitchen.

house on a hill

23-05-2010 09-13-22OLD NOTEBOOKS: Chiang Mai: I used to have a house on a hill in England, so far away from here – it’s just a memory now. I had it for 36 years and it was sold just a few days ago… feels like a part of me has become extinct. Another part of me says, what’s gone is gone, let it go because I never really lived there. I’d stay there for a while, go away to Asia for a year, then come back; very long grass in the garden and generations of spiders.

Curiouser and curiouser it was part of a larger building owned by my Great Aunt Liz, a spinster, a recluse and she could read fortune-telling cards. Aunt Liz gave me the house by Deed of Gift in 1978, then became a bit distant and elderly and quite stubborn about allowing me to help.

I’d send Aunt Liz postcards from the places I’d been and bring back gifts but she became more and more remote. Our communication dwindled and in the end she hardly spoke to me. When I knocked on her door, she would open it on the chain, smile and say: ah, so you’re back. You’re looking well… then close the door. I’d hear the lock go: click, and I was left outside.

This is how it was, a kind of companionship, no more than that. She was probably disappointed that I wasn’t going to just come and settle down in that place and be what she’d imagined I’d be. But what could I do? Her decision to create a situation for me to have a ‘home’ next door to her was just so kind. There I was in the centre of rural life and the simple rumbling-along of things, but… never for very long, always moving on to somewhere else.


She died in 1989… I was in Japan and it was impossible to return. I negotiated with a relative who inherited Aunt Liz’s part of the house and to cut a long story short, eventually I owned the whole building. Contractors were hired to renovate the place, but it was two or three years before I managed to get back. The house on the hill had long since become a dream… years and years spent thinking and planning how I could go live there in the end, and just get old sitting by the fireside. These last few days I have revisited that same place in the midst of these rememberings, knowing that sometime soon I have to disengage from it – it’s not my house anymore it’s somebody else’s. People I don’t know walk around in these rooms where I used to be, sit by the fireside stare into the flames.

02062011038How long do memories remain? One time I was sitting there burning some old floorboards removed during the renovation of Aunt Liz’s bedroom. The wood was dry and old and good for kindling. They were also painted along the ends – she had a carpet in the middle and painted floor boards all round the edge. It all came back to me when I found it… stuck in the paint on a piece of the floorboard, a human hair – a single strand of hair, quite long. It got stuck there as she was applying the paint. I kept it for a while; would hold it between thumb and forefinger for a moment and pull the tension of it gently… still attached to the painted wood. Then one day I placed the wood piece in the flames and watched it burn away.

Everything is always in the process of ceasing to be, turning into ash. There’s a reluctance to leave, drawn towards the extinguished fire; something peaceful about the absence of everything…

As fire, through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source, so thought by loss of activeness grows still in its own source… For by tranquility of thought one destroys good & evil karma. With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul, one enjoys unending ease. [Maitri Upanishad 6.34]



OLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: Dreamy half-formed images swim before the eye without identity, no recognizable or known parts of the image. I’m trying to see it this way: no identity, otherwise ‘self’ intervenes and it ‘becomes’ something [bhava]. I’m falling asleep again; still early morning, comfortably dark and sitting on the cushion on a futon on the floor in the upstairs room. One advantage of sleeping on the futon is that you can roll over and up into the sitting position on the cushion quite easily – a smooth transition from sleep to wakefulness. The disadvantage is that it’s difficult to stay awake.

The process of waking up in the morning means the mind is in the process of getting shaped into a form, a ‘self’, and it all gets locked down then; ‘becoming’. So what I’m trying to do here is not let that happen. Without the habitual inclination towards ‘self’, conscious attention gently searches out another way, one that is identity-free, no ID card. The problem is, of course, ‘self’ tries to take over, as usual and if the identity-free state is present, ‘self’ understands it to be sleep. So I start to drift off to sleep again. I see it happening and think: Hey! Why should the ‘self’ impose itself like this? But the ‘self’ goes around imposing ‘itself’ and making assumptions about everything all the time and if I were to just let it go on doing that, I’d not see that things are actually quite different from how they appear to be.

Continue the meditation by following the breath, and a curious feeling that I’m sitting at an angle, or the weight of the body is over on the right side and on the left side there’s something like an empty space… what’s happening? Next thing is, I’m thrust into another dreamlike scenario and some sort of memory sequence. Here we go, I’m falling asleep again and losing it all in the dreamy half-formed images of the sleep I just emerged from. Mindfulness cuts in when I remember to let it all go. Hold on and let go… I need to hold on to the intention to let go. Everywhere I look there’s a ‘self’ searching for an opportunity to create an identity, (sakkayaditthi) ‘personality view’. It’s what holds beings in the cycle of rebirth. Breaking out of the cycle is arrived at by non-becoming – allowing it to ‘become’ without becoming.


It does not appear or disappear.
It is not born and does not die.
It is neither constructed nor raised up,
Neither made nor produced.
It is neither sitting nor lying,
Neither walking nor standing still,
Neither moving nor turning over,
Neither at rest nor idle.
It does not advance or retreat,
Knows not safety or danger,
Neither right nor wrong.
It is neither virtuous nor improper.
It is neither this nor that,
Neither going nor coming.
[Lotus Sutra]

Photo: Louk Vreeswijk

the end of TV

OLD NOTEBOOKS: East Anglia: There used to be a TV here but I gave it away. A big old fashioned dinosaur TV, too large for this little old cottage. No room for it; limited floor space, low ceiling height, clutter and junk (jutter and clunk). I manhandled the TV upstairs but it was no good there; then downstairs again and hurt my back in the process. It was always in the way; just too big. I had it under the table for a while but it looked silly there… and I started to see that it had to go.

But I was dependent on TV watching; every other activity took second place to that, and attempting to disengage from TV was a struggle. What to do? I’d try switching it off suddenly, right in the middle of something, a chat show, whatever, just to see what the room felt and looked like without all the noise, bright lights and rewarding, congratulatory applause. But every time I did that, the absolute silence of a world without TV was devastating! The lack of colour and severity of greyness in the house was just… sad! I had to switch it on immediately. TV was like a friend, I couldn’t say goodbye to it. I kept on doing that, though, switching it off and on again, in the middle of programmes, to surprise myself. Eventually I started to get interested in the idea of the silence that remained without TV, typical of the location I was in – a house surrounded by quiet fields and nature.

But TV-cold-turkey was no fun and I was in denial for a very long time. Then one day I was watching the BBC news and noticed the newsreader pronounced his words with a weird sort of ‘smirk’… kinda disgusting, and then the whole ugly ‘self’ aspect of it was revealed. Shocking, but I was glad it happened because it was obvious then that I didn’t feel comfortable with TV in the house – it had to go. I carried it out the back door and left it in the garden; went back inside and discovered this huge space in the room where it used to be. Interesting to see the directions in the room created by a focus on TV; chairs arranged so that viewing could take place comfortably. So I rearranged the furniture, changed it all around, and that was really quite liberating.

I’d return to the kitchen window from time to time and look at the TV out there in the garden – holding my attention, still… thinking, that object should be ‘inside’, not ‘outside’. Completely out of context in the garden, but I just left it there; no longer connected to it. Later that day, it started to rain and drops were falling on the dusty black surface – the urge to take it back in… that was difficult. The neighbour dropped by and he said it’s not a good thing to leave a TV out in the rain. I told him I didn’t want it anymore, maybe he’d like to have it for his spare room? Okay thank you very much… and, you’re welcome. So I gave him the channel changer and that was it. Off he went and I watched him carry it into his house, happily bewildered by my generosity and failing to understand my joy at having escaped the inertia of TV.

That was then; and this is now. I’m sitting on the cushion in an absolutely compelling silence. It’s before dawn, still dark, and I have the window wide open. Not cold but it’s raining, I’m upstairs and can hear a few rain drops hit the window sill, most of the rain drops are still on the way down. I want to experience this rain so I go downstairs open the back door, get my meditation cushion positioned so that I’m not bothered by drops or wetness coming into the house. Sitting on the surface of the planet listening to the rain striking the hard concrete outside and the grass beyond that. The open door to the garden, no wind here, dry and the sound of raindrops merged together in one whole mass of tiny collisions. An endless wave of pitter-patter-pitter-patter, like thousands of tiny finger snapping sounds. The generosity of rain.

[Link to: Rain]


‘Like a thief entering an empty house, bad thoughts cannot in any way harm an empty mind.’ [Padmasanbhava]

Photo Image Source