issue 23 Summer 04
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Rhapsody in Grey

Awareness is a mysterious thing: Subhadassi bares all in his search for the sacred within the ordinary.

'...What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?'

('Sunday Morning II', Wallace Stevens)

This morning began, as it usually does, with Yorkshire Tea. I chiselled myself out of bed, wound clockwise down the stairs. While the kettle built up steam, I watched sunlight doing its thing to the gnarled cooking apple tree at the end of the lawn. It was soon time for meditation. I turned on the fairy lights draped around the shrine, lit some candles and wrapped a capacious pink blanket round me before sitting in front of the huge brass sculpture of the Bodhisattva Manjughosa. The meditation went well. Some of the time I was just sitting there - breathing, aware of my heart and body, aware of the world around me (blackbirds and tits singing; Richard the farmer on his tractor taking hay to the cows down the lane).

After T'ai Chi on the lawn and a bowl of porridge, I couldn't help but wander out into the elements. Just as I was putting on my walking boots, the phone rang. Could I do a poetry reading at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in May? Not a common kind of request in Subhadassi-land, so I was sorry to say, 'No, I can't.' I'm leading a retreat on that date. Not so glamorous, nor does it pay so well - but, in all likelihood, better for the universe, I'd say.

It was a date for a launch reading. My first book of poems, peeled, is out this year. It's been a long time coming. Reading poems to an audience is like taking off your clothes in public. It is a ritual form of exhibitionism and if the ritual works, it subverts the exhibitionism. You are left naked and rinsed - peeled, you could say - and in harmony with life. At best, it's the same with writing them. I find writing an important means of growing awareness and speaking truths.

Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets, wrote that an important point in his career came when he read the poetry of Thomas Hardy. He realised he didn't need to 'jack himself up' (imagine a car jack) in order to write poetry. In a similar way, I don't want to 'jack myself up' in order to live a spiritual life. I have a strong wish for my spiritual life to be the same as my daily life. I want every bit of myself to stand, or sit, or lie down, in the same room. I don't want it to be happening elsewhere because, in truth, there is nowhere else. As Wallace Stevens asks, 'What is divinity if it can come /Only in silent shadows and in dreams?' Seamus Heaney speaks of a similar thing when he evokes a 'nine-to-five man who found poetry in the heartland of the ordinary'. I want to be that man.

Finally out of the farmhouse, I walked down into the wood, past banks of snowdrops lit up by morning sunlight. As I hit the cyclopean stone slabs laid down by the Hadrian's Wall path builders to save us from bog, I stopped to text. There is something about texting in the countryside that I love. I feel the preposterous magic of it.

By the winding brook and industrial quantities of mud, I imagined my 159 characters evaporating from my phone like genii, flying at the speed of light through the bare birch trees towards a mast that was (appallingly) disguised as a Scots Pine down on the Longtown Road. Then they were relayed to another network, passing through microscopic silicon slivers, flowing by more everyday magic to a transmitter from where those 159 genii, those sweet nothings, whispered themselves into another's phone to work their poetry.

I made it through the gate and turned up the track onto the big field in front of Richard the farmer's house. I skirted the side of the wood, past the dun cows and a pheasant that went off like a car alarm. The field levels out, and a huge, green panorama of lowland rolls away towards Brampton. Beyond it, the Pennines start in earnest - vast farmhouse loaves of rock and earth. On the horizon Cold Fell, capped in snow and ice, was living up to its name. On a good day - and it was one of those - you can see, as well as the Pennines to the South, the Cheviots in Northumberland to the North East, the mountains over the Border in Dumfries and Galloway to the North West, and the Lake District to the South West. A circle of peaks. All those glinting mountains took me back to other glinting mountains.

In 1992, aged 24, I travelled to Spain to attend a four-month retreat in the Spanish mountains near Alicante during which I was to be ordained, with 25 others, into the Western Buddhist Order. I had just spent a solitary week near Valencia, and was due to catch a bus south down the coast to begin the retreat.

As I got on the bus, the first thing that hit me was the smell of hashish. I looked around, and saw the likely candidate on the back seat, a big baggy spliff in his hand. When he opened his mouth it was clear that he came from very near the Pennine town I was born in. We began talking. I told him of my ordination adventure. He was equally candid about the fact that he was a stripper. A man who took his clothes off in public. He was on his way to start the season in Benidorm - one of Spain's most famous summer seaside fleshpots.

As we passed orange trees bearing millions of fruit lit up by the Mediterranean sun, he told me that he usually had sex with eight women a day, seven days a week, six months of the year. A lot by anybody's standards. Astonished, I worked it out - about 1,500 sexual encounters in six months, and usually never with the same person twice. I was practising celibacy at the time, and would continue to do so for the four-month retreat and beyond. He was very worried, as he never used a condom. I had been doing some work as an HIV counsellor . The more he poured out his heart, the clearer it became that he was terrified. He was out of control.

I was 1,000 miles from home. I had expected to say goodbye to the wider world for four months in an anonymous, undramatic fashion. I imagined my journey to the mountains would be serene and other-worldly as I unpeeled myself, prepared to go naked before the Buddha and be reborn with a new name, a clearer spiritual focus. But no, a messenger from my homeland was there to wave me off. My heart went out to him, with his well-formed six-pack of abdominal muscles, his sun-bleached hair and easy swagger. We both got off the bus in Benidorm. As I headed up to the mountains, he took a taxi to his first gig at the Black Bull.

It is afternoon. I have spent it doing fiddly admin using various prosthetic devices - keyboard, telephone, computer screen. My shoulders are tense. I feel cooped-up. So I get my sports kit on and run up the track. Mud waits under the puddles to souse me.

Rain lashes down; it is Cumbrian rain, a special kind of super-penetrative water, quite unlike the gentler Yorkshire rain I grew up with. It is the same rain that Winifred Nicholson witnessed for all those years that she lived, not in St Ives or Paris, but just up the road, painting the dark bulk of Cold Fell that I see again as I run home. Painting greys in skies with at least as much gravitas as the greys Canaletto came to Warwickshire to capture, after he'd had enough of Venetian masks and regattas.

I have my own ideas about why Canaletto came to Warwickshire; why Winifred left St Ives and Paris for an anonymous hamlet in Cumbria. It's something to do with engaging with life's subtler dramas - low adrenaline, unjacked-up living. Finding poetry in the heartland of the ordinary.

Call it grey insight.

When I was in multicoloured India a few years ago I attended a retreat at Sarnath, where the Buddha first communicated his realisations. The retreat was run by the Insight Meditation Society at the Burmese Temple. Each morning I would ride my bone-shaker of a hired bike the half mile from the Tourist Bungalow to the first meditation, my aubergine-coloured kurta pyjama and shawl (yes, by then I'd gone native) flapping in the chill January wind, a fog of charcoal smoke heavy in the air.

Practising open meditation in Sarnath, at the start of a two-month pilgrimage, while suffering from amoebic dysentery, was strong medicine. I came to see myself clearly. And what did I see? I saw a man with a very distracted mind. What's more, I clocked what would accrue to me if my mind stayed like that. It hit me - to quote Kurtz from Apocalypse Now - 'like I'd been shot straight between the eyes with a diamond'. I was shattered. Peeled. Everything went grey.

A Sense of Grace
It's like you've just been born.
Your spine uncurls like a fern;
the delicate skin under each of your eyes
hasn't even had time to dry.

Time's taken off her roller blades,
woken up to the size of the sky.
Tomorrow waits patiently,
like a performing dog, for a sign.


I spent a horribly uncomfortable few weeks admitting myself to myself. I was humiliated. I felt terrified. The jack had not let me down to the ground gently - it gave way instantaneously as I sat in that meditation hall. I had fallen into the heartland of the ordinary. I was naked, in public. And in India there is nowhere to hide.

The biggest upshot was that two years later I became involved in re-establishing a retreat centre for Dharma inquiry in Cumbria, where I have lived and worked for the past nine months. The move was not so much about finding less distracting conditions - my previous living situation was in many ways ideal in its isolated fastness. (And frankly, I could distract myself to a professional extent anywhere.) It was more to do with helping others: establishing a meaningful, creative and harmonious context in which I could live, teach, write, work.

If you're fulfilled, able to give and content your mind becomes focused, it lets go. However I still often have a distracted mind. It's still me here. I haven't yet been able to bring that insight into the grey nine-to-five, out of silent shadows and dreams. But, sometimes at least, I can say I'm really trying.