This month Little Toller publishes Paul Kingsnorth’s new book, Savage Gods. For this series on The Clearing Paul invited poets, writers and artists from across the world to respond in their own way to a simple, one-word theme: transformation. The result is a series of explorations, in words and images, of the alchemical cycle of change: breakdown, rebirth and renewal. This piece is by Charles Foster.
Two stories and a conversation:
Alex was a merchant banker. One weekend, egged on by a new girlfriend who, bafflingly, had refused to sleep with him, he went off to a country house in the English Home Counties. There, after some excruciating group discussions, a lot of singing, and a genial but banal talk from a young curate with gelled hair, Alex found himself standing in a hot room with people he theoretically despised but in fact rather liked. ‘Come, Holy Spirit’, said the curate, over the electric guitars, and suddenly Alex found himself weeping uncontrollably. That was bad enough, but what happened next was appalling. His lips started moving, speaking a language he didn’t recognise, and then his legs gave way, encased though they were in pink Charles Tyrwhitt trousers. He fell backwards, and was caught by a big chef from Essex.
Next day, to the despair of his parents and the nervous delight of his girlfriend, he handed in his notice to the bank and put his Fulham flat on the market. He wrote out a cheque for half of his bank balance and sent it off to a charity supporting the homeless, with a note saying that there would be more when the flat was sold. Then he proposed to the girlfriend, who accepted. They were married six months later, and moved to Teesside to run a hostel for rehabilitated heroin addicts.
‘The poor bloke’s had some sort of breakdown’, they said in the bank. His father, a banker himself, agreed. But his mother, after her initial horror, wasn’t so sure. ‘Do you know’, she would say to her husband, ‘Alex seems to be just like he was when he was 8, before we sent him to that dreadful school. He seems to be himself.’
Everyone agreed that Emma was in a mess. She ate, drank, and smoked too much, and wasn’t too choosy about who shared her bed. She drifted from job to job. Not even the team leaders could pretend that they were the sort of jobs that mattered. One day she was caught for the umpteenth time playing computer games when she should have been drafting a report. She was fired. She went briefly back home, threw a toothbrush and some knickers into a bag, caught the tube to Heathrow, and got a standby ticket to Mumbai. Three days later she enrolled on a Vipassana meditation retreat. She solemnly promised not to lie, kill or steal, not to use drugs or alcohol, and not to have sex. Then for ten days she sat cross-legged for many hours a day, watching her breath pour into and out of her body.
It was the most difficult thing she’d ever done. It wasn’t so much the pain in her legs and back: she could see what the instructor meant when he said that she should just notice the pain and come back to the breath. It was the clamour of her thoughts. She surfed on the waves of sound they made, and was sick to the stomach with the motion. Then, not content with nausea, they racked her. They pulled her painfully in many directions: one thought took her off to a dress shop; another to an itch under her eye; another to a smashed semi-relationship. ‘Note your thoughts’, said the instructor. ‘Note them and let them go. Wave goodbye’. She hated him for his easy sanctimony. ‘It’s OK for you’, she muttered between breaths. ‘You’ve never had dry rot, an abortion, or a mother who believes the Daily Mail.’ But she persevered: she imagined picking up each thought fastidiously between a finger and a thumb and gently throwing it out of her mind. Slowly, slowly, the noise inside her head grew softer. Until, in the early evening of the seventh day, with the cicadas rasping outside the meditation hall, she realised that the fizz of thought had stopped.
This was not a moment of joy: it was a moment of panic. ‘If my thoughts have stopped’, she said. ‘What’s left? What is this thing that is watching its breath? Whose breath is rasping up and down?’ And then, with a smile, she said gently to herself: ‘That must be Emma’.
From what happened afterwards, it certainly seemed to be.
I was drinking red wine with an old Greek Orthodox priest, somewhere in the southern Peloponnese. We’d been talking about the British writer, Bruce Chatwin, who at the end of his life said that he wanted to be admitted into the Greek Orthodox church. (He died of AIDS before he was). ‘Would he have stayed in Orthodoxy?’ I wondered aloud. ‘Or would Byzantium have been just another exotic location to add to his collection?’
‘I don’t know about him’, said the priest, ‘but there is one sure fire way of telling whether someone will last. The ones who stay with it always, always, say that they have found their way home. That they have always really been Orthodox, however long they’ve been a Jehovah’s Witness, or a Satanist, or a Communist. The conversion – the transformation – is actually a reversion: a rediscovery: an acknowledgment of something that has always been.’
Whatever happened to Alex and to Emma, it was a transformation. Yet it seemed that they became more what they really were, rather than something completely new. They went home to themselves, just as the Greek Orthodox converts described themselves as feeling eerily at home in the swirling clouds of incense, in a liturgy they didn’t understand, watched by legions of dead saints. This is rather strange, and I don’t like it much. I share Chatwin’s fear of home and his insistence that movement is of the essence of human beings: that if we stop moving we die. I’d rather believe that self-realization is acquired arduously and swashbucklingly after a painful rite of passage at the top of a unpronounceable mountain, or in an opium den in an Uzbek caravanserai; that it is an invasion of something exciting and weird. It’s unromantic to think that it’s nestling there at home; perhaps to be disinterred from our childhood; that it’s a denizen of the hearth. I want my own agonised journeying and my own painful absences from my children to have a point.
But now that I think about it, there’s a fair amount of agreement amongst the great religions that transformation is about return; about homecoming; about knowing something that has always been there, un or under-recognised.
Many Muslims prefer to say that one ‘reverts’ rather than converts to Islam. The idea is that all of us, as children, have an innate sense that we should submit to God: the sense is called the fitrah. Adult converts to Islam reacquire it. Maimonides declares in the Mishneh Torah that the highest state in heaven is not for those who have been Torah-observant since birth, nor even for the Tzaddik – a conspicuously holy one – but to the Ba’al teshuvah – the ‘Master of Return’ who, as an adult, comes back to his abandoned religion. The Jews are repeatedly told to return to the Land: only there can they be fully what they are meant to be. ‘Return to me’, urges God through Isaiah, ‘for I have redeemed you.’
The same themes are explicit in Christianity. The Prodigal gets hugged by his father (and the fatted calf gets killed) when he returns home. There was no self-realization when he was eating pig food in a distant land. The motif of baptism (taken from the Jewish rite of immersion in the mikveh) indicates that when the filth is washed off, you’ll be able to see yourself properly. The stuff that’s washed off prevents you from looking like yourself. We’re used to looking in a mirror and describing as our own face the distorting accretions of decades.
St Paul talks expressly about transformation. ‘Be transformed’, he urges, ‘by the renewing of your minds’. Not a destruction of your minds, note, but the old one serviced, and made to behave as it should. He couldn’t be clearer about this: ‘…what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do…it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me….’ Get rid of the sin (or, if you prefer, the ontological confusions with ethical consequences, or those old accretions) and the ‘I’ will be itself again. Even those passages of the New Testament that talk radically about the death of the old person assume a radical continuity between the old and the new: the old plant has to die to give rise to the new.
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions are less happy with the idea of self-realization, simply because in their more severe articulations they see the self as an illusion that must be dissipated. Yet even the most austere agree that the self has to be seen and known (in the type of experience that so transformed Emma) before it can be destroyed. Emma wrote in her notebook that ‘Vipassana’ means ‘to see things as they really are’, and says that her new knowledge of herself felt just like that.
All this is uncomfortable to modern westerners. It smacks of a creepy Platonism – as if there is a Form of Charles Foster in some transcendental space, or at least crouched inside my head, and that my thriving entails approximating more and more nearly to that Form. Moderns also dislike this idea because it is ethically prescriptive: if there’s a normative Charles Foster who, with appropriate care and attention, is gradually being realized, Charles Foster’s behaviour will track that self-realization. Such normative language is anathema to anyone marinated in the Enlightenment presumption that autonomy (by which is really meant licence) is the only principle guiding ethical decision-making. But I’ve never met an autonomous man, and I hope I never do. If he exists (and if he does, he will certainly be male), he’ll be icily, psychopathically cold and dull, and I wouldn’t want to sit next to him at dinner. Humans are quintessentially relational animals, and anyone who denies his quintessence isn’t going to be fun. I’d much prefer to meet St Paul, who knew (like all reflective people) that he wasn’t autonomous at all, but that the process of transformation was slowly making him more and more free; less and less enslaved to an alien power.
That’s enough of human transformation. It seems to be the process of become more oneself: of returning to the original garden, for which our physiologies and spiritualities were designed.
Might the same idea apply elsewhere – for instance to the natural world? I think so. If a field is left to itself, it becomes more what it was and is. All its latencies, ancient and modern, are realised. Anything that frustrates that process of realization (for instance ploughing) isn’t transformation at all: it is simple destruction.
There is lots of talk about corporate transformation – generally along the lines that Greed plc is reducing its carbon footprint and sending its middle managers to pick up plastic on beaches. This is pernicious nonsense: think back to what transformation really is: becoming oneself. Corporations can’t become more themselves because they don’t exist: their personality is a legal fiction that has been responsible for most of the destruction of the natural world. A legal fiction can’t weep repentantly, or look wistfully back at its infant Eden, or reflect on what is stopping it from optimal self-realization. The people who are employed by it can, sure. At least for a while, until they are consumed. Corporate humans are often swallowed by their own Leviathan, of course, and give up their flesh and blood, becoming non-existent themselves – assimilated into the non-existent entity they serve. Most of us have met some of these poor damned things. But the whole idea of corporate identity is that the corporation is not the people in it – a mantra that allows corporate apparatchiks to formulate and execute policies at which the conscience of any creature of flesh and bone would gag. It is precisely the impossibility of corporate ethics (because one needs to exist in order to have real ethical mandates) that has caused the depredation of the world. Corporations aren’t responsible because they are not. They can’t be transformed because they are not.
It is easy to despair. It is hard not to. But the Buddhists insist that a few self-realized – that is, transformed, people can change the way the world spins. I agree. A tiny number of existent things can triumph over any number of virtual entities. The non-existences will self-consume. The real and the transformable will win. The meek, not the incorporated, will inherit and transform the earth.
I saw Alex the other day. I saw Emma a couple of months ago. They glowed. By which I mean they glowed. I met them for the first time. They used very similar language to describe what had happened. ‘I’m being unfolded’, said Alex. ‘I’ve spread my wings’, said Emma. ‘And I never knew I had wings at all.’
I don’t know what to make of all this. But I do want to know who it is who watches my breath on my morning meditations, and for that person (if it is a person) to be less flighty and trivial and mean.
Charles Foster is a Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford, and author of Being a Beast