Friday, July 29, 2016


But what can eternity of damnation matter to someone
who has felt, if only for a second, the infinity of delight?
Charles Baudelaire.

I am fascinated with the person and poetry of Charles Baudelaire [pictured right and below]. I am sure that says more about me than I would like to know or share.

Expelled from school, and extremely morbid and tortured, Baudelaire lived a life of excess and ruined his health by overindulgence in alcohol and addiction to opium. He attacked bourgeois complacency and one finds a ruthless honesty in all his writing. His poems are very much about evil and corruption, decadence and debauchery, depravity and damnation, physical and moral dissolution, and sin and redemption, the latter, at least in Christian terms, seemingly impossible in Baudelaire’s view. Still, the ideal can at times be perceived to shine through the transient, the ugly and even the sordid. Even the infinite can at times be dimly perceived – a wonderful solace – even if it remains unattainable except in death with which he appeared to have a special fascination. Take, for instance, these lines from Baudelaire’s poem ‘The Living Flame’:

Beautiful Eyes that gleam with mystic light
As candles lighted at full noon; the sun
Dims not your flame phantastical and bright.

… and these two quatrains from ‘Hymn to Beauty’:

What matter, if thou comest from the Heavens or Hell,
O Beauty, frightful ghoul, ingenuous and obscure!
So long thine eyes, thy smile, to me the way can tell
Towards that Infinite I love, but never saw.

From God or Satan? Angel, Mermaid, Proserpine?
What matter if thou makest—blithe, voluptuous sprite—
With rhythms, perfumes, visions—O mine only queen!—
The universe less hideous and the hours less trite.

It’s not that I like Baudelaire’s poetry all that much, although one must admit that although his vision of life is for the most part bleak, he wrote so very well and with passionate imagination. He could see the beauty even in ugliness and degradation. No wonder Paul Valéry called Baudelaire the most important poet of the 19th century. He certainly was the greatest lyric poet of his age. Having said that, after reading several of his poems in one sitting you can end up quite depressed. At the very least, you feel like you need a good, long bath or shower. Take, for instance, these lines from his poem ‘Spleen’:

I’m like some king in whose corrupted veins
Flows agèd blood; who rules a land of rains;
Who, young in years, is old in all distress …

Then there’s these lines from ‘Heauton Timoroumenos’:

I am the vampire at my own veins,
  one of the great lost horde
Doomed for the rest of time, and beyond,
  ‘to laugh – but smile no more.’

… and these from ‘Beyond Redemption’:

A damned soul descending endless stairs
Without banisters, without light,
On the edge of a gulf of which
The odor reveals the humid depth ...

Of course, there are some quite uplifting, even lyrical, poems. Here’s a quatrain from ‘Exotic Perfume’:

When, with closed eyes, on a hot afternoon,
The scent of thine ardent breast I inhale,
Celestial vistas my spirit assail;
Caressed by the flames of an endless sun[.]

However, the mood of foreboding, torpor and gloom is never far away. Take, for instance, this quatrain from ‘Autumn Song’:

The whole of winter enters in my Being--pain,
Hate, honor, labour hard and forced--and dread,
And like the northern sun upon its polar plane
My heart will soon be but a stone, iced and red.

Now, we can learn a lot about mindfulness from reading the poems of Baudelaire. You see, mindfulness is seeing things-as-they-really-are in a non-reflexive way. Choiceless awareness, to use a phrase often used by the Indian spiritual philosopher J. Krishnamurti. Here are some lines from Krishnamurti:

When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing? Seeing the flower makes you say, ‘How nice it is! I want it.’ So the ‘I’ comes into being through desire, fear, ambition [all thought], which follow in the wake of seeing. It is these that create the ‘I’ and the ‘I’ is non-existent without them. (J. Krishnamurti, The Krishnamurti Reader, ed by Mary Lutyens (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p 245.)

Mindfulness is choiceless – that is, non-judgmental – awareness. You look, you see, you observe. You touch, you feel. You hear. You smell. You taste. There is no reflexive thought about these experiences. You, the observer, are one with the observed. You are one with the experience and the thing or occurrence experienced … as it happens … as it unfolds. Awareness without choice, judgment, condemnation, interpretation, comparison or analysis. The French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre [pictured below] astutely understood Baudelaire:

‘Baudelaire’s fundamental attitude was of a man bending over himself—bending over his own reflection like Narcissus. With Baudelaire there was no immediate consciousness which was not pierced by his steely gaze. For the rest of us it is enough to see the tree or the house; we forget ourselves, completely absorbed in contemplation of them. Baudelaire was the man who never forgot himself. He watched himself see; he watched in order to see himself watch; it was his own consciousness of the tree and the house that he contemplated. He only saw things through this consciousness …’ (Jean-Paul Sartre, Baudelaire, trans from the French by Martin Turnell (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1950), p 22.)

Yes, Baudelaire sees things through his consciousness of—himself. Here are some more lines from ‘Heauton Timoroumenos’:

I hear it in my voice - that shrillness,
that poison in my blood!
I am the sinister glass in which
the Fury sees herself!

Baudelaire is not alone. If we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us bend over ourselves much of the day. We bend over our own reflection like Narcissus who, according to the Greek version of the myth, saw his own reflection in the water and was so entranced by the reflection of himself that he died at the banks of the lake. Why? Because he was unable to obtain the object of his desire. You see, the object of his desire was nothing more than an image. A self-image. It’s the same with us. We have lots of images of ourselves in our mind but they are just that—images. They are not the person that we really are. When we experience reality as it unfolds from one moment to the next we tend to experience and interpret that reality through our various self-images. The result? An indirect, non-immediate, distorted experience. Reflexive consciousness as opposed to mindfulness.

So, what exactly can we learn from Baudelaire about mindfulness? Well, this. Don’t let your ‘watching self’ distort your experience of life as it unfolds moment by moment. Learn to see things-as-they-really-are by merely observing them. Resist the temptation to compare, contrast, analyse and judge. Just enjoy the experience of watching and observing. In other words, be choicelessly aware. Be ever mindful of the intrusive ‘watching self’. Once you become aware of its presence, it ceases to be a problem. It disappears. Let it go. You don’t need it at all.

Practise mindfulness at every moment of the day. Stop watching yourself watch. Just watch, look and see. That, my friends, is the art and science of living mindfully.





Friday, July 15, 2016


‘Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil,

is rightwise King born of all England.’

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur (ca 1469), Book I, chapter 5.

On a recent trip to Great Britain with my wife I had an opportunity to refresh myself with the ancient legends and folklore pertaining to King Arthur, the once and future King of England.

My wife and I visited a number of places in England that are said to be associated with King Arthur—places including:

●  Tintagel Castle, perched high on a majestic headland in Cornwall, where according to at least one account Arthur was born, and where in 1998 was found a 1,500 year old piece of slate with two Latin inscriptions one of which seems to link Arthur with Tintagel,

The author at Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall
where King Arthur is said to have been born.
Was it also Camelot, Arthur's castle and court?

Glastonbury Abbey, in the very heart of Glastonbury, Somerset, where King Arthur and his wife Guinevere were said to have been buried, with the tomb surving until the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539, the Abbey itself supposedly having been built on the site where Joseph of Arimathea and his companions settled at Glastonbury and founded the church,

Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset

●  the nearby Glastonbury Tor, which is believed by some to be the Isle of Avalon of Arthurian legend under which Joseph is supposed to have buried the Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper, and which Joseph used to collect his blood at the Crucifixion, the myth of the Holy Grail probably having been evolved from earlier Celtic myths about magical life-restoring objects, 

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset -- Isle of Avalon?
(Avalon is the purported place where the sword Excalibur was forged
and later where Arthur was taken to recover after the Battle of Camlann.)

●  Chalice Well, at Glastonbury, Somerset, which supposedly marks the site where Joseph placed the holy chalice, and which has a spring from which perenially flows water with a distinctive orange-red colour, supposedly 'blood-stained' as a result of the buried chalice, and 

Chalice Well, Glastonbury, Somerset -- a place where
Arthurian legend and the Joseph of Arimathea
tradition are inextricably mixed

●  the Iron Age hill fort known as Cadbury Castle, at South Cadbury, also in Somerset, which is said by some to have been the site of the picturesque castle Camelot

Cadbury Castle, South Cadbury, Somerset -- Camelot?
(According to tradition King Arthur sleeps in Cadbury Castle and every
Midsummer’s Eve leads a troop of mounted knights down the slopes of the hill.)

Almost every place we visited was said to have some connection with the Arthurian legends. Take Tekels Park, Camberley, Surrey, for instance, which is owned by the Theosophical Society in England. It is on the grounds of the Tekels Park estate that The Order of the Round Table in England holds its camps. The Order of the Round Table uses ceremonial activities, particularly ceremonies pertaining to the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, to communicate the ideas and ideals of the ancient wisdom and thus promote the moral, spiritual, intuitive and social development of children and young people. I think it's quite a noble organisation, and there are branches of the organisation in a number of countries including Australia where I live.

Tekels Park, Camberley, Surrey ...
for modern day 'Knights of the Round Table'

Now, we can be pretty certain that Arthur was not a medieval king in Britain between the years 400 and 600 who lived in Wales or in the west of England in Somerset or Cornwall with a council of knights in shining armour, and we can be very certain that there was never a place such as Camelot. However, there is some historical evidence that a person called Arthur or Uther was a king or leader in Cornwall, northern Britain or Wales who led the Britons against the Anglo-Saxons from the London area in the 5th century CE. We also have a couple of records [see here and here] of a King Arthur winning the Battle of Mans Badonicus in 516 CE, although a different account gives the date as 500 CE and doesn't mention Arthur at all. There is also a record of the death of someone called Arthur at the Battle of Camlann ('Camelot'?) in 537. 

Tintagel Castle, Tintagel, Cornwall

So, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Arthur was probably a 5th and early 6th century Romano-Celtic warrior chief -- a Briton and not English -- who for a time protected his peoples from the Saxon invaders from countries in the north of Europe. Either that or a composite of several individuals later uprooted from the Dark Ages and thrust into medieval times to become a romantic legendary and literary figure of lasting renown.

The author at Tintagel Castle

Fact, legend or a mixture of both, the story of King Arthur is not not true. You see, a myth or legend, as well as a character of folklore and literary invention, when seen as such, can never be said to be false. Myths, legends and folklore, having their roots in human experience, are about eternal verities and they can have great transformative power if they are approached with the right mindset and intent. King Arthur, as a symbol of every person in the pursuit of truth, knowledge and power, is very real. Actually, there are two Arthurs in Arthurian legend and literature. One is the flawless epic hero and the other is much more human, imperfect and fallible. In truth, both are real, for both are true of each one of us. 

Site of the alleged tomb of King Arthur,
Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury, Somerset

Now, there are two legends explaining how Arthur purportedly received his sword Excalibur. In one of them, young Arthur pulls the sword out of a stone. His ability to pull the sword from the stone gave him ascendance to the throne. A second legend describes how Arthur and the wizard Merlin, Arthur’s guide and counsellor, meet a woman at a lake. Merlin asks the woman to approach. Excalibur emerges from the lake, held by a mysterious hand. The woman takes the sword, the hand disappears, and she delivers the sword to Arthur. I love these lines from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King:

   There likewise I beheld Excalibur
Before him at his crowning borne, the sword
That rose from out the bosom of the lake,
And Arthur rowed across and took it—rich
With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt,
Bewildering heart and eye—the blade so bright
That men are blinded by it—on one side,
Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world,
‘Take me,’ but turn the blade and ye shall see,
And written in the speech ye speak yourself,
‘Cast me away!’ And sad was Arthur’s face
Taking it, but old Merlin counselled him,
‘Take thou and strike! the time to cast away
Is yet far-off.’ So this great brand the king
Took, and by this will beat his foemen down.

When Arthur was born, he was taken by Merlin and cut from any family bonds. This symbolizes that in order to pursue the spiritual path -- that is, to come to know truth (or see things-as-they-really-are) – we must detach ourselves from worldly attachments (that is, things that stand in the way from our coming to know truth). That does not mean we must follow an ascetic life but the fact remains that if we would travel far along the path of truth and wisdom we must travel light. 

Merlin symbolizes Arthur’s spiritual guide or teacher as well as the means by which the Round Table is created, a table symbolical not just of equality and brotherhood but also of the whole universe as well as life and death (with no beginning and no end). In later stories, Merlin is also responsible for building Excalibur. It is also through the assistance of Merlin that Arthur is born. He guides Arthur to withdraw Excalibur from the stone. Merlin is also the prophet of the Holy Grail and he assists Arthur to achieve many of his goals. In short, Merlin represents the creative power and principle in our lives -- the one presence and power active in our lives and in the universe as well. Call it the life force if you wish. In truth, we must all be our own Merlin, that is, our own guide, master and teacher – and our own pupil. Enlightenment or salvation occurs when we---wake up!

Glastonbury Tor, Somerset

Overcoming the bondage of self is never easy, and it takes time to free ourselves from that bondage, the main reason being that there are, within each one of us, literally hundreds of false selves (in the form of our likes, dislikes, attachments, opinions, views, beliefs and misbeliefs). There is, for example, in many of us the angry false self (‘I am angry’), the jealous false self (‘I am jealous’), the fearful false self (‘I am fearful’), the unworthy self (‘I am a miserable sinner’), and so on. These selves—lots and lots of psychological ‘I's’ and ‘me's’ that collectively manifest as our ego-consciousness) are called false because they are not the real person each one of us is, but we mistakenly believe that one or more of these false selves---which are nothing more than self-images in our mind---are the real person that we are. In truth, all of these 'I's' and 'me's' have been created by thought. Indeed, they are thought -- thought images, if you like.

Chalice Well, Glastonbury, Somerset

Now, these false selves are illusory, not because they do not exist--for they do indeed exist as images in our mind--but because they have no separate, distinct, permanent identity from the person that we are, the latter being a mind-body complex that is ontologically real (the 'physical "I"'). Only the person that you are---a person among persons---is ontologically real. The good news is that each one of us can be relieved of the bondage of self -- the Holy Grail, so to speak -- but first we must come to understand that we need no longer be a slave to self.

Cadbury Castle, South Cadbury, Somerset

Arthur eventually overcomes the bondage of self but it took some time, as it does with all of us. This is symbolized in the Arthurian stories by taking the two-edged sword of the truth -- Excalibur -- from either the stone or the lake of the false ego, the lake being a reference to the fabled Lady of the Lake

I like both images. A stone is hard and the false selves that we hold in our mind can be as hard as stone. It is not easy to extricate the sword of truth from something as hard as that but it can and must be done. The image of a lake is also rich in symbolic power, for water suggests the movement of thought and consciousness (always feminine in ancient symbology), and our false selves are just that – thoughts waxing and waning in our consciousness. Still, they can be damn persistent for all that.

Tekels Park, Camberley, Surrey

The sword Excalibur is a symbol of power and authority, and represents the truth about ourselves, namely, that each one of us is a person among persons. When we come to know the truth about ourselves, we are set free from our false selves. Our task is to destroy our false selves with the sword of knowledge, power and truth. The Knights of the Round Table represent our multifarious attributes and qualities that characterise the real person that we are. We need all those attributes and qualities, and we need to use them wisely, if we are to escape the bondage of self and become a fully functioning human being.

Now, that's where the regular practice of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness enables us to see our false selves at work in our minds and lives, that is, to see ourselves as we really are. And mindfulness empowers us to let go of those false selves and become the real person we are destined to be and which in truth we really are. You see, mindfulness itself is a power-not-oneself.

View from Glastonbury Tor
'Don't let it be forgot. That once there was a spot ...'

Only the king can take the sword from the stone. Who is the king? You are, when you are living authentically as a person among persons and not as one or more of the many false selves which you mistakenly believe are the real you. So, take the sword in your hand -- and pull!

Yes, you and I are King Arthur as well as Merlin, and we have the power within to be victorious -- and to reign forever.