Wednesday, 8 May 2013

My faith in poetry

When I was in my early twenties I began searching for greater meaning to life. My wife, who had yet to turn into a witch, was expecting our first child, and it was the wonder of this above all else that convinced me there had to be more to life than was presented to the senses. And it was the birth of the child, my daughter Heather, and the heavy societal expectation she would be baptised, that delivered me into the hands of the Church of England.

I tried to be a Christian, I really did. I got up on Sunday mornings and attended mass, shook hands with other worshippers, wishing them the peace of the Lord with my sincerest smile, knelt for wafers and cloying wine, went to tea parties, invited all my friends and family to my confirmation. Jesus, I even tried bell ringing. I turned a blind eye while my parish priest got his bishop to sanction his marriage to a divorcee. (I was later, after my divorce from The Wicked One, denied the right to remarry in the Church of England.) And all the while I tried to persuade myself that, if I just persevered, I would come to believe there was a god.

My poem "The great key" tries to capture that burning schizoid desire to believe in things my senses told me were utterly false, to persevere with patterns of behaviour and speech that felt, even at the time, dishonest and debasing. Ironically my behaviour became more devout and evangelical the stronger my doubts grew. And if "schizoid" seems strong, let me tell you a year after I first walked into a church I was on medication for anxiety and depression, so it's not a million miles off the mark.

(Incidentally "The great key" is based on a true story. I recently decided to visit the parish church in the village I have lived in for sixteen years. I had never been inside it, but when I went I found the door locked.)

My recovery from Christianity was effected not by medicine, but by philosophy. Plato's Symposium was my starting point, but I was subsequently counselled by Spinoza, Descartes, Kant, Locke, Hume, Nietzsche  Marx, Mill, Sartre, Russell, Dennett. And Voltaire, oh Voltaire. I learned that there are no right answers, or at least there is no one right answer (but no unanswerable questions either), I learned to appreciate the rich and unfathomable complexity of the world, and I also learned to tolerate, even to embrace, ambiguity.

One day I read an article in New Scientist about the beneficial effects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, which it claimed induced neurological changes that made practitioners happier and more focused. I didn't know how to meditate, but I live quite close to the headquarters of the Buddhist Society in London, so I decided to go to one of their courses to learn more. By the second week of the course I was so fascinated by Buddhism itself that I completely lost sight of my original aim, and by the end of the course was willing to call myself a Buddhist.

  • I do not believe there is a god, nor that there being one would explain anything.
  • I do not believe in an afterlife, nor do I feel any need to believe in one.
  • If there is a heaven or a hell, I believe this is it.
  • I believe we are reborn every moment we live, that everything that happens happens now.
  • I feel no need to explain how this world came to be, nor how it will end.
  • I believe that what we do is more important than what we believe.

This is not an exhaustive statement of my beliefs, but just enough, I hope, to explain how my predisposition to religion and immersion in philosophy and science perfectly readied me to accept the Buddhist view. For all of these "beliefs" are compatible with, if not fundamental to, Buddhism. I say "beliefs", but the it would be more accurate to say I considered them as propositions and found them to be either true, or at least helpful as heuristics, useful ways of dealing with the world. I put my faith in them in the same way as I put my faith in my senses.

And of course this new faith has found its way into my poems, too. A poem like "Waiting for the R Train", for instance, which deals with the real-life horror of facing imminent death, illustrates how it is the burdens our past regrets and hopes for an imagined future that prevent us living fully in the present. No one ever experiences their own death, of course, in the present, but only ever through anticipation. "Maiden flight" explores the same idea in a different way, its subject once again death but this time suicide, and once again we experience the liberation from casting off attachment - to mistakes from the past and to shattered hopes for the future. It's not quite nirvana, but doesn't suck.

In fairness to Christians let's remember that Jesus' parable of the birds said much the same thing.

Peace to all beings!

(c) 2013 Andy Hickmott

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