Written on my birthday – 22 Jan – and got buried in my ‘to edit’ list.
The chooks are making a racket and the breakfasting ducks pause and align their gaze. A passing shower obliges me to close my window. Another wet day.
I have been listening to Don Watson’s Watsonia – a survey of his writing life. His sense of Australian landscape and culture reminded me of my jobs that were dominated by landscape – in northern and western NSW and on the Tasman Peninsula.
That all stopped in mid 2006 when I began commuting eastward to Parramatta and Penrith. Even so, I had the mountains at the beginning, and the end. In 2018 I commuted to Lithgow. It was mountains all the way.
Watson’s evocative images, and extraordinary mastery of the language, reminded me how strongly we can split our awareness between the natural and human domains. On my commute east, once train passed Lapstone, and before it got to Emu Plains, the view from my window shifted from bush to the intensely and relentlessly human.
I pause as the bird symphony is intruded by the sound of a jet overhead. My plane finder app tells me it’s a Qantas flight out of Sydney bound for Adelaide and it’s at 5,338 metres. The human invades everywhere.
The human is complex. Our senses are attuned to that complexity. Our eyes and ears are conditioned to interpret input that keeps us safe and helps us achieve our objectives.
The natural world is complex. We know this rationally. Few of us have our senses finely tuned to it. At best we might engage with it as a respite from the relentlessly human. But rarely are such experiences immersive, or for long enough for us to need retuning to the human on our return.
These days I avoid the inner city as much as I can, which is a lot. The sensory overload is exhausting and unpleasant. In contrast, when city dwelling family folk come to stay, they find the quietness almost unbearable. It can cause sleeplessness, apparently.
The bush and the city are mutually incomprehensible, and maybe intolerable, to those senses and sensibilities are deeply attuned to the other. This is as it should be. Fish do not walk on land, and I do not wander submerged.
But we must not mistake a simple vision of a strange thing for a representation of what is. The absence of intimate familiarity is no sin, but neither is it a foundation upon which to presume an estimation of value or nature.
We need to develop a dual nature that endows us with an ability to anticipate the presence of complexity of nature and behaviour of whatever we encounter – in the city or the bush. This is not a difficult task, but it a demanding one. It requires patience, stillness, to tune our senses. It requires the acquisition of knowledge that obliges us to reframe what and how we think. We don’t have to remember that knowledge, so long as it helps us unthink what we do think. As we unthink and tune our senses, we expose ourselves to things that may have been previously preposterous.
A lot of opportunities to experience the paranormal are denied because we assume something ridiculous cannot be so. Sometimes that lost opportunity is known only in hindsight. Some now long time ago, I was leaving home in a hurry. I had thrown my keys into a briefcase. As I rushed to get out, I had a nagging thought to check that my keys were there. Ridiculous. I had tossed them in the briefcase mere moments ago and I had no time for a worry wort check. I got to the car and ….no keys. Great. I was locked out of car and home. I was very late. When I managed to get back inside, I found the keys on the floor, right where my brief case had been. Had I heeded that hint, none of this would have happened. There was a lesson to be learned. I am less stupid these days, and nowhere near perfect – but now I listen to, and heed, the soft thoughts way more often than I ignore or dismiss them.
I hate flying. In the early 70s I was flying out of Adelaide to Melbourne and I was about to learn a valuable lesson. As I was about to board, I was overcome with an anticipation of drama and risk. I was unsettled scared by its force, and I needed to calm down. Was the plane going to crash? I sat down, composed myself and ‘felt into’ the journey. It would be okay. On approach at Melbourne, we were advised the was a problem with the undercarriage and the plane was going fly around a bit to get rid of fuel – just in case. We landed just fine.
Not every ‘bad’ feeling has an adverse outcome. But I had to dare believe, and that, at that moment at the Adelaide airport, was a difficult choice until I calmed down and tuned in. I was on my way back to Tasmania – and I was driven to get there. As it turned out the plane’s passengers were right out of a Hollywood movie. There was a guy in handcuffs with 2 plain clothes cops as escorts, 2 nuns, a priest, a young couple with a newborn child. There was no way it would have been okay if we had crashed and burned.
I had adopted the habit of ‘feeling into’ a trip. Sometimes I did not go as intended, because it didn’t feel right. Mostly, there no evidence that was a good move. But one time, outside The Place cafe in Kings Cross, Sydney, I sat on the back of a motorbike and instantly felt bad. As good as the rider was, he was also inclined to push things to the edge. I got off, giving a weak excuse about feeling crook, so as to not offend him. I knew, if I had been truthful, he would have laughed at me. I was replaced by a shorter guy. He had his knee grazed in a close shave with a car that had moved out of a lane without seeing the bike.
I don’t know if I was seeing what did happen or whether I dodged a more serious injury. It’s not possible to know. Not every thought that comes into our minds is uncontested. We habitually evaluate and edit notions that seem irrational or preposterous. We have a conceit that we are smart enough to know enough to make a judgement on a sudden, unbidden, thought – usually reflexively and with no careful consideration. We aren’t. The trouble is that averting a problem means you have no evidence that your intuition was good. Hindsight is, unfortunately, a good teacher – but sometimes it’s too late.
Around 1992 I was driving for work between Grafton and Armidale on the NSW mid north coast. As I approached the crest of a hill sitting on around 100 kph I suddenly snapped into a strange hyper alert state. As I hit the crest, I saw a car insanely attempting to overtake a slow log truck on my side of the 2 lane road. I recall flicking left onto the verge, which was fortunately free of series debris, and back onto the road. As I drove on, I was in a state of shock. My heart was pounding and I was in a very strange headspace. I recall debating whether to pull over and chill or not. I decided that if I pulled over, I would probably fall apart and not be able to drive. I didn’t want that, so I kept going. I was fully conscious that the sudden hyper alert state saved me from a full-on head-on.
A few months later I was driving from Lismore to Moree. I was over the speed limit to the point where I might have been booked, had I been caught. It was a nice straight road, conducive to going over the speed limit. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of a blue light in my rear vision mirror. I cursed and slowed down, expecting a police car to loom up. Only it didn’t happen. There was no police car behind me. But there was in front. I slowed down just before a bend and went through it at about 80kph – and there, previously out of sight, was a police car and a cop with a speed gun.
Even when my envisioning of my journey left me feeling confident it was to be a safe journey that did not mean everything was uneventful – just that I would get to my destinate safely – though maybe scared half to death. In a way, feeling into the journey developed a habit of ‘seeing ahead’ that certainly saved me from speeding fines. My colleagues and managers were all regional roles, and I think I was the only one, over 18 months, not to pinged for speeding. Several colleagues were down to the last points on their licenses – and their jobs were at risk.
You can fall prey to what are fears, and anxieties, that intrude. Not all ‘intuitions’ are that. But rather than dismiss awareness of them as folly, it is far better to learn to distinguish between fears and intuitions. That requires practice. Pause, on becoming conscious of an odd notion, and interrogate it – intuition or anxiety?
There’s a two-way conversation between the rational conscious domain of our mind and the unconscious intuitive realms. But mostly we edit and filter it out so, that, at best, it is a fleeting notion that offends against our immediate dominant habit of rational thinking (or so we fondly think it is), and is dismissed. There is so much ‘monkey mind’ chatter the subtle thoughts are missed or dismissed. Our normal states of mind are unfriendly places for intuitions. We can make them better.
Writing can be a useful tool to learn to discern those subtle thoughts and intuitions from the storm of emotions – once we have mastered the art of getting beyond our ego and conceit – and into an authentic voice. Here I don’t mean writing something for publication or sharing – just a private practice – a journal perhaps. This won’t help with idiot errors that get you locked out of car and home, but it can develop a softer ear to one’s inner voice.
If we write badly it’s because we were never taught to write well. If we can learn to write ‘from the heart’, we can tap into a deeper level of awareness and insight. We usually start off in a pretentious way – ineptly aping how we imagine good writing should be. It can take time to drill down beneath the BS to find our hearts. Mind, some souls are blessed with the ability to get there quickly.
In late 1996 I was coming back on a ferry from Calais to Dover. I had been on a non-lander return trip to buy duty free wine and cigarettes. I was sitting with a pint of bitter, reading, I have forgotten what. Suddenly I was struck with the idea that I would be a writer. It was a forceful and sharp notion that startled and rattled me. When I got home, I went to bed and bawled for close on 24 hours. I had no idea why, but I could not stop.
I had been writing in various ways for years, but I was not ‘a writer’. I did not take the idea to mean I would become a published author. Rather, writing would be something I did intentionally, as a practice – as a hobby perhaps.
I still do not understand what happened on the ferry, nor afterwards. Now it seems like the purging of long pent-up emotion, some buried grief that had to be released, maybe.
In 1998, back in Australia, I joined the Far North Coast Regional chapter of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW). I took to the meetings and workshops with a passion. In 1999 I entered the local chapter’s annual literary competition with 7 pieces. Like all such competitions, it was open for entries around the country and overseas. I was stunned to receive 5 awards – a First Place, 2 Highly Commended, 1 Commended, and Worthy of Mention in short story, article essay and poetry categories.
That was a brief blaze of glory. No other contestant had won as many awards in a single competition in the 12 years it had been running. I didn’t continue to enter literary competitions – though I did later enter a couple of pieces and one award a couple of years later. I stopped writing short stories and poetry after a few years because of my focus on my tertiary studies. It seems as if the experience was about getting me writing – and nothing else. I have put that newly developed skill to good use in my subsequent academic studies and professional work. But privately I have continued to write notes and explore ideas associated with my primary passion – some of which is expressed in this blog.
The point of this story is that a sudden and powerful experience was allowed full expression and realization. After bawling for 24 hours – and I mean this literally, not figuratively – I used a chunk of my meagre resources to buy a word-processing typewriter and started writing like crazy. Writing became my main medium of contact with a deeper sense of awareness – a kind of in between state of consciousness that was neither fully rational nor a reverie or trance.
But writing to tap deeper layers of awareness was a perilous business at first. Getting beyond ego and conceit was not easy. It took a lot of practice. I was told by a spiritual teacher some years back that what I had written was largely useless as a source of insight and ideas. It had too much ‘me’ (ego) in it. I couldn’t get out of my own way to let my deeper nature speak onto the page.
It’s still a work in progress.