Wednesday, 24 April 2013


"Ah truth! How terrible a thing it is to know the truth, when it brings only pain!" - Tiresias

For the Greeks, theatre was something very different to what it is now. It was not just a form of entertainment with the opportunity for drinks beforehand and a nice meal with some interesting conversation afterwards, but part of a profound religious festival, that of Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, abandon, poetry and mystical insight. One of the last cults to have taken root in Greece, that of Dionysus was said to have come from the East. It may even have been a form of worship of Siva which had spread Westwards to Europe from India. Greek culture was originally resistant to the female-orientated, anarchic, chaotic nature of Dionysus, but his primal force could not be withstood and by the end of classical Greek culture he was probably the most ubiquitous and honoured god of the pantheon.

Nietzsche wrote brilliantly about Dionysus in his first piece of work, The Birth Of Tragedy, which is still regarded as a landmark, if a controversial one, in classical studies. For him, Dionysus stood opposed to Apollo as a different way of encountering the chaos of life. Where Apollo represented grace, harmony, the purity of the mind, creativity as generator of sublime illusion whereby the individual is able to transcend the despair and pain of existence by contemplating the Beautiful, Dionysus was pure energy and confusion, sensuality and impulse, the intoxicated leader of a frenzied, ecstatic dance which, in its sheer, exhausting life-affirming energy, enabled the Initiate to transcend in a different way the Abyss that Nietzsche saw haunting the Greek psyche. Both Apollo and Dionysus represented paths to Enlightenment, but in opposite ways.

Greek Theatre was dedicated to Dionysus. At the beginning of each Dionysia, the name of his Festival, a great statue of Dionysus was wheeled onto stage for an opening ceremony. The High Priest of Dionysus sat in a primary position, presiding over the events of the Drama. Greek Theatre was, then, not a celebration of what Yeats called 'an Attic Grace', not sublime, non-cthonic harmony & beauty, but of Chaos, the confrontation of Disharmony, the Irrational, disaster and death. In this confrontation, just as Dionysus was said to grant Enlightenment through Madness, the different protagonists of each play, along with the audience, experienced the Katharsis or 'Purification' that Aristotle spoke of. Dionysus granted his followers a Higher Consciousness through a clear-eyed, unflinching stare into the Abyss...

So Greek Theatre was not just 'theatre' as we know it, but a kind of public Mystery. Most who read these pages will know what a 'Mystery' is. It does not mean 'something mysterious', but something Mystical. This may seem like a circular statement, so to explain: a Mystery is the mystical core of a set of beliefs. If the outward forms of a religious or spiritual tradition represent its exoteric manifestation, the Mystery is where the holy of holies is penetrated, where the body and soul moves beyond rational knowledge and somatic awareness into something completely integrated and holistic, where Reason cannot penetrate and instead the Initiate exists in a state of being which is transformative and all-encompassing, a Higher Consciousness as it were. The term derives from the Greek word 'Mysteroi' which meant 'Initiate' and was specific to those who experienced the Eleusinian Mysteries, which gave people a vision of their own immortality. Words break down at this point, as they always do when the Ineffable is said to be encountered. Only experience remains.

All Greek cults had their Mysteries. Apollo, Aphrodite, Zeus, Hades etc all had them. All were held in secret and jealously guarded, offered only to those who were ready or thought worthy. Of course, elements of the Mysteries were contained in the exoteric rituals of each god as well, just as they are today in exoteric acts such as Communion or Yom Kippur in Christianity and Judaism. But for the deeper Mysteries to be enacted, great preparation was required.

This was why the Dionysia was so unusual. It was a public Mystery, one shared by the general population, like a Christian Passion Play or the enactment of a Katakali Play in a Hindu Temple delineating one of the many stories of the gods. Indeed Greek Drama has many parallels with Katali. It has similar stylisation of faces and movement, a similar context of Holy Rites and adventure story and similar roots within Shamanic Dance and Ritual. Katakali is known to have originated among Hindu Shamanic dances in forests and fields in which Shamen channelled the spirits and energies of the gods. Greek Theatre is thought to have originated in the Dithyramb, a communal celebration of Dionysus in which a Chorus-like assembly of performers hymned and honoured the god. At some stage, legend has it, a single individual, Thespis (from whom we get the word 'Thespian'), is said to have differentiated himself and created a new kind of performance, in which a solo performer interacted with the Dithryamb. As an image of a change in consciousness, of the individual mind suddenly becoming aware of itself and stepping out of the collective identity, it couldn't be more obvious. Jung would have found it fascinating

So how does all this relate to Oedipus and his agonising story? Well firstly, if one sees Greek drama as being a public Mystery, then the journey of the characters must be an enactment of that Mystery. The voyage of Oedipus from his position as King to blinded exile and then, ultimately, a hero taken up by the gods, becomes the journey of the individual soul to a semi-divine status possessed of a higher consciousness.

But how can this be so? Oedipus' story is one of abject horror. The curse he undergoes is terrifying and cruel. Why must a Mystery demand such suffering? To understand, we have to look at the three-fold structure of the Greek stage itself.

In common with all great eras of Theatre, the Greek stage presented a complete vision of how the Universe was seen at the time. For the Greeks, this was a deeply hierarchic one, but within this there was a holistic conception of how the different levels of reality interacted. If one looks at the stage from an aerial view, one sees that by far the largest part of it was the Chorus, which spread out in a semi-circular apron stage formation into the audience, which radiated out from that in turn. The Chorus was the bridge between the audience and the action. Indeed the Chorus was drawn from the audience, being made up of ordinary Athenians who competed for the honour of being chosen to take part in it.

A Chorus was made up of 14 performers and a Chorus Leader, providing the visual symmetry of two sets of seven with a single Leader at the centre. It used song, dance, music and dialogue throughout the performance of any one Greek tragedy. There were always five Choric Odes, or sequences in which the main action stopped and the Chorus took over, the last of which, fascinatingly, was usually frenzied in some way, as the action mounted towards its climax - eg the Summoning of Dionysus at the end of Antigone or the sudden explosion of the Furies in the Eumenides as they threaten to destroy Athens. The Chorus was always characterised as coming from the mass of the population or its leadership. In Antigone they are Senators, in Electra they are the women of Clytemnestra's house, in Medea they are ordinary women of Corinth and so on.

In Oedipus Rex they are population of Thebes. As such, they are of a lower social order than the Heroes who make up the main protagonists of each play. They observe the drama, interact, comment, try to make sense of what is happening, give or withhold support, even try to intervene, but at no point can they change the course of events. They are powerless to do so. There are exceptions, most notably Aeschylus' brilliant use of the Chorus as the Furies in the Eumenides, who become the main characters in the play, or at least among the main characters. The Furies threaten to completely overturn everything and it is their journey from disaffected and abused primal agents of vengeance and chaos to the Kindly Ones, beneficient spirits who preside over Athens, that makes up the main meat of the drama. But this is a one-off. Unless one counts the Bacchants in Euripides' Bacchae, nowhere else do the Chorus have quite such a primary role in the action.

The Chorus would never move from the section of the stage reserved for them, even though it is the largest part of it. Above them is the stage of the Heroes. These Heroes - Oedipus, Electra, Antigone, Medea, Ajax etc - are the key human protagonists of the plays. They are mortals, like the Chorus, but of a more individuated, higher status or kind. They have moved beyond the collective experience of the majority of humanity and begun to pursue their own destinies. These characters are invariably great heroic figures like Achilles, Odysseus and/ or aristocrats like Electra, Clytemnestra etc. Just as we watch public figures strut their stuff on the world stage - George W Bush, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake - so the Chorus and the audience watched the Heroes follow their own paths, unable to intervene, but always able to interact. On the Greek stage, this 'elevated' status was reflected by the raised platform they would have appeared on. So, in the opening scene of Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus speaks to the people of Thebes who have come for his help in dealing with the plague that has afflicted their city, he would have stood above them, talking down to them, just as a modern leader or politician would.

Just as at no point could this division between Chorus and Heroes be breached, above the Heroes stood another unbreachable divide - the level of the Gods. This was where the different deities of the Greek Pantheon - Apollo, Zeus, Athena etc - would appear, if appear they did in any given drama, on a stage reached by a single entrance at the centre of the back wall for maximum effect. When manifest, the Gods would address the Heroes and Chorus from this elevated platform and, once again, there would be no crossing from one level to another. Of course, sometimes there were exceptions, especially in the work of Euripides, who delighted in subverting the rules of the Theatre he had inherited. In his Bacchae Dionysus is able to walk among the Heroes for much of the play because he has disguised himself as a High Priest of his own cult. But when he reveals himself at the end having exacted his terrible revenge on Cadmus and his family, he would have appeared on the higher level of the Gods. Similarly in Medea, Medea appears among the Gods having killed her two children in order to punish Jason. Euripides got into huge trouble for writing this, as not only had he violated the Divine Order set out on the Greek stage,but had suggested that a woman could be elevated by the Gods for having committed such an appalling murder. Thus he was accused of immorality, nihilism, blasphemy, sacrilege and misogyny. Such was Euripides' darkly subversive intent.

So we see how the very structure of the Greek theatre expressed their vision of how the Universe worked. Gods, Heroes and the general mass of humanity interacted in a hierarchic but also holistic whole. Of course, the Gods didn't always appear physically in these plays. More often than not their lurked behind the play, invisible presences, communicating themselves through third parties - Tiresias, for instance, or the Oracle - or, as in Oedipus At Colonus, voices that are encountered by key characters. But they were always there, effecting and affecting the proceedings.

But the multi-layered genius of Greek theatre didn't stop here. For although the architecture expressed this unified but layered vision of the Macrocosmic Universe, it also expressed its Microcosm - the inner man itself. Just as sacred sites of all kinds, from Christian Churches to Hindu Temples, are designed along the dimensions of the Cosmic Man (Christ and Purusha respectively), so the Greek stage was designed to express Microcosmic Man, the Anthropos, us. For the three-fold nature of the Chorus/ Heroes/ Gods conception of existence was paralleled in the three-fold nature of the human organism as conceived by the esoteric doctrine of the time.

For the Greeks, as I mentioned in my earlier post about the Soul, Man was made up of Soma, Psyche and Pneuma. Soma was the Body, our physical form, which carried the Image, or 'Eidolon' that was our physical manifestation. This corresponded with the Chorus, with its passions, its its fears and its hopes. Next was the Psyche, or Soul, which the Greeks identified as the source of everything that was us in the inner man; emotions, feelings, reason, the receptacle of experience, memory, language, intuition, creativity, identity. This, they believed, had its seat in the Heart. Last was the Pneuma, or Spirit, that part of us which opens out onto the Eternal, which outlives the Soma and Psyche and partakes of the Divine, the repository of the Higher Consciousness. This, they believed, emanated from the Head. Keen students of Vedanta will recognise parallels with the Chakra system. Those who know their Gnosticism will remember the way in which certain Gnostic sects separated people into three different categories - Hylics, Psychics and Pneumatics...

So the Greek's conceived of the interior nature of humankind, which was always seen as the Microcosm of the Macrocosm which was the wider Universe. Man reflected the Cosmos and vice versa. Herein lay the true secret of the Mystery of Dionysus as expressed in the drama. Each play was not just the story of an external series of events, but that of an interior journey. Apollo, Athena, Oedipus, the Furies were internal as well as external realities. The process of death and transformation that took place on stage was supposed to take place within the minds of the spectators. The drama was a psychodrama, or rather, a psycho-spiritual drama.

And it is with this understanding of the many levels upon which Greek drama operated that the possibility of a new way of experiencing Oedipus Rex emerges...

Sunday, 11 July 2010


"Then let it break! I must know who I am!" - Oedipus Rex

Thanks to Freud, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex is probably the most misunderstood play in the West. Before Freud, Oedipus' story was seen as the classic expression of the horror of a Universe in which one was trapped by events which one could not change or effect, where one's destiny one's was in the hands of inexorable Fate, and where, instead of love or justice descending from the Gods to Man, there was only cold, heartless necessity. After Freud, it became about the Oedipus Complex, the psychological trap Freud believed every man was doomed to become trapped in, and out of which all of Western culture and morality had evolved: the realisation that one's first sexual instinct was towards one's mother and therefore one's first murderous instinct was towards one's rival, the father. Out of this primal experience coupled with the ancient societal taboo against incest and parricide came the endless guilts, paradoxes and moral evasions that human culture found itself in. For Freud, every man was doomed to experience this, just as every woman, as reflected in the Electra story, was doomed to experience the same thing in reverse - sexual feelings for the father and hatred for the mother. Sophocles was only the first to articulate it as a universal. Oedipus' howl of despair and rage at the end of the play was every man's howl of agony at recognising this terrible truth within himself. Freud's excitement on encountering the play for the first time was almost religious in its intensity. Suddenly, for him, everything fell into place, his whole system seemed corroborated. So Sophocles' play, identified by Aristotle as the quintessence of what tragic drama was all about, became locked in a Freudian nightmare forever.

Neither of these interpretations of the play are necessarily wrong. Both give our understanding of it texture. But at the same time neither is necessarily what Sophocles intended when he wrote it, or, even if we can't say what he intended for sure, neither exhausts its possibilities. There are other ways of encountering and understanding the play, one of which may unlock something vital and potent within it that liberates it from its apparently cruelly deterministic aura of doom: that the play is, on a very profound level, about Sight. And not just about physical sight, but the profoundest sight available to us - sight into the deepest part of our nature.

To understand what I am wittering about, its worth looking at the way in which eyes and sight have worked historically in cultures that predate our own. The eye - eyes themselves - has always been an image of something profoundly sacred all over the world. In the East, the sign of Buddha's 'Awakening' or 'Enlightenment' is the fact that his eyes are permanently closed, unseduced by sense perception, the entangling and tormenting constantly changing and transient phenomena of this world of Maya, Illusion, which distracts the mind from itself and causes so much pain. The Buddha is 'asleep' to this world and 'awake' to the inner world. If any part of him is 'awake' it is the famous Third Eye, the Ajna Chakra, which provides mystical and intuitive insight into Truth. Sometimes known as the 'Gyananakashu', or 'Eye of Knowledge', it is regarded as the seat of the Antar-Guru, or Inner Teacher, communicating with the deepest part of ourself. Thus although the Buddha's physical eyes are closed, his spiritual eye is open in the profoundest sense, seeing things as they truly are.

In Hinduism, Siva's eyes are similarly closed, especially when he is presented as the Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance, negotiating the Wheel of Fire, his eyes sealed, his gaze turned inwards, smiling as he dances. Tradition has it that when his eyes open, the whole Universe will end, as the Universe is no more than his own dream. His creative counterpart in the Trimurti, Brahma, is similarly in a state of deep meditation or sleep, blind, once again, to physical phenomena, emanating Reality from his dreams.

In the West, the Eye has equally powerful connotations. The All-Seeing Eye which conspiracy nuts get so uptight about is an ancient image of the all-seeing, all-pervading presence of God (and not Alien Illuminati Zionist Mind-controlling Puppet-masters, sorry). It appears in Kabbalah in exactly the same way as an image of God as Universal Consciousness aware of everything. Its oldest derived source is ancient Egypt, where it appears as the Eye of Horus or Wedjat, a symbol of Royalty and Protection against evil (and not evil itself, sorry you conspiracy guys!). The addition of the All-Seeing Eye on the summit of a pyramid which appears in Freemasonry echoes not only the Eye of Horus but the ancient Egyptian Benben stone, the primordial mound that emerged from the Waters at Creation out of which everything came. Thus the Masonic image combines the All-Seeing Eye of Kabbalah and the Judeo-Christian tradition with the Creation myth of ancient Egypt, the pyramid also being a symbol of the Soul. In ancient Greece, the Eye was often painted on the prow of ships to protect them as they travelled, a practise borrowed from the Egyptians and other cultures. When sculpting a statue, the statue was not 'finished' and did not truly take on the likeness of someone or 'come alive' until the eyes were painted on (anyone who has ever painted a figurine should try this. Notice the difference between one which has no eyes painted on and one which does). Even in somewhere as remote as Easter Island, it is believed that the great stone heads of the Ancestors that litter the shores were not 'active' unless their eyes were placed in their sockets.

Eyes, then, have massive significance all over the world as images of spiritual insight, cosmic power, protection, guidance and, simply 'doorways to the soul'. The great poets Homer and Milton were both blind and throughout literature physical blindness, as we shall see, is often seen as a sign of inner sight and understanding. Tiresias, the ancient Greek Seer who is never wrong is blind and in Shakespeare's King Lear, Gloucester only begins to grope towards a painful self-knowledge when he has his eyes torn out by Cornwall. As he himself says of his own moral blindness after he has lost his eyes:

"I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;
I stumbled when I saw."

Physical sight does not mean one has insight. Indeed, as the Tao Te Ching tells us, the physical senses can distract us from everything:

"The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.
Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without."

"He prefers what is within to what is without" - what more powerful statement could there be about the journey Oedipus is forced to go on? In another Taoist text, the Secret of the Golden Flower, the eyes are seen to be the gates of the Chi or Life Force, with Chi draining out of them unless we learn to redirect their energies back in. This vision of the discrepancy between Inner and Outer sight reappears in the Upanishads, when the Sage is encouraged to trace the source of sight away from the external world and within themselves, to the Spirit, or Consciousness which is their actual being:

"Know that when the eye looks into space it is the Spirit of man that sees: the eye is only the organ of sight. When one says 'I feel this perfume,' it is the Spirit that feels: he uses the organ of smell. When one says 'I am speaking,' it is the Spirit that speaks: the voice is the organ of speech. When one says 'I am hearing,' it is the Spirit that hears: th eear is the organ of hearing. And when one says 'I think,' it is the Spirit that thinks: the mind is the organ of thought. It is because of the Spirit that the human mind can see, and can think, and enjoy the world."

It is a common trick of sensory perception to make us believe more powerfully in the thing we perceive externally to us than the thing within us which does the seeing. How less certain are we of who we are, what our ground of being is, what our identity is, than we are of the tree we are looking at, or the film we are watching? What is external to us always seems more real and tangible than what is internal. Such is the conjuring trick of life.

In Oedipus Rex, we have two figures for whom sight is key - Tiresias, the Blind Seer, mentioned above, who has no physical sight but has total understanding and knowledge of the future, and Oedipus himself, the conquering King, who has physical sight but understands nothing. By the end of the play, Oedipus has become like Tiresias, similarly blind, but not yet with the insight the Seer has (that begins to come later in Oedipus at Colonus). That the play is about the often agonising progress of the individual to some kind of self-knowledge should be obvious. But there is more to it than this - and the nature of self-knowledge Oedipus comes to - which lies hidden in the play which cannot be understood unless one reads it on a level which few commentators do: the level of Initiation. For Oedipus Rex is much more than just a play. It is also an enactment of a Mystery, not just in the sense that Oedipus is trying to uncover his own true nature, but in the sense of a Mystery which unlocks the workings of the Unseen, just as, say the Dionysiac or Eleusinian Mysteries may have worked. To understand this, one has to understand two things about Greek Drama: that it was not drama as we understand it ie a form of entertainment, but part of a profound communal religious festival and that the form and structure of a Greek Theatre was not just designed to put on a play, but to explore the complex, multi-layered nature of the human organism, the interplay not of Man and the Gods, but of the physical and soul-self, the temporal self and the eternal...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


"And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground." - Gospel of Luke

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy." - Psalm 130

The picture above is by Vincent Van Gogh. Its name is At The Gates Of Eternity. He painted it in the last few weeks of his life, not long before he shot himself, dying two days later. As an image of human suffering and despair, it probably cannot be beaten, except, perhaps, by Edvard Munch's The Scream, which is now iconic. Who has not known the state of mind, the pain which the man seems to embody in this picture?

And that is kind of my point. Who has NOT known it? Who has never been in that black place which Van Gogh so powerfully evokes here, where everything seems terrifyingly empty, mental anguish is intense and one longs for some kind of comfort or release, even, dare I say it, an end? The thing that makes the painting so powerful is not that it is unusual, but that it evokes something everyone at some point in their life experiences. And yet how little - how LITTLE - do any of us own up to it? Instead we pretend, individually and as a culture that it doesn't happen. Pain, suffering is the big, black, dirty secret that we seem collectively to be too ashamed and afraid to talk about…

I had never seen this picture until a few weeks ago when I was working on Nicholas Wright's play Vincent In Brixton which is a fictionalized account of what might have happened when Vincent Van Gogh stayed in London for a few years as a young man, long before he even dreamt of being an artist. It was an interesting play to do, dealing as it did with love, the pain of losing love, despair, worthlessness, aspiration and the struggle for artistic expression. Pretty much everything that makes life what it is, basically. As part of the process, quite naturally, we all found ourselves increasingly fascinated and absorbed into the drama and character of Van Gogh, his battle to be an artist and his fight against the mental anguish he experienced throughout his life

Everyone knows the story of this great artist - the tortured but inspired genius who died penniless and unknown but produced what are now regarded as among the finest works of art of the modern world. Van Gogh struggled with despair, pain, mental illness and suffering for most of his adult life. His last words, spoken to his brother who was by his bedside as he died, were 'This sorrow will never end'. And yet his work is among the most vibrant and visionary we know. Is it possible that the intensity of his work - which seems to indicate a mind of such raw sensitivity - and the depth of his pain had some kind of correlation? That what made him such a genius also made existing here in this world doubly difficult for him? Of course, some commentators have said that he went bonkers because of the lead in his paints. This is entirely possible, but the fact that he showed signs of mental instability as a young boy suggests otherwise. And besides, all sorts of people get poisoned by something or other - aluminum in cutlery, lead in paint etc - but they don't all produce masterpiece after masterpiece on canvas. Such suggestions inevitably demonstrate the feebleness of what passes for 'scientific' assessments of a man's mind and experience, reducing the epic struggle of a human life to resolve the paradoxes that torment it in such a way that generations of unpoisoned people can relate to and find cathartic, to a daft and meaningless biological accident.

What became clear as we worked on the play - just as it had when I did Jane Eyre in the same theatre exactly a year before - was that if Van Gogh had been alive today, he would have diagnosed with something (depression, bipolar disorder, whatever) and slammed onto anti-depressants, perhaps never producing the works of art he did as a consequence. As we discussed this, the list of great artists who would have suffered the same fate seemed to drift on forever - Sophocles, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, T S Eliot, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, D H Lawrence, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett and many others - not to mention some of the greatest philosophers who found themselves seeking to address the problem of suffering and existential angst all their lives - Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato, Satre etc etc. We realized that even our religions all started with a response to the mystery of pain and suffering. What is the Old Testament but a series of stories about surviving overwhelming suffering and persecution, not just meted out by humans but also God (one of the books is called Lamentations for God's sake!)? What is the whole story of the Fall but an expression of the pain of experiencing Knowledge of Good and Evil - ie being conscious and self aware? What is the image of the Crucifixion but an image of facing agony - 'Oh Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?' - or the story of the Garden of Gethsemane? In the East, the whole idea of Liberation (Moksha or Nirvana) is about transcending human suffering. Indeed, the story of the Buddha's journey to Enlightenment begins with him encountering the presence of suffering in the world - an old man, a diseased man and a corpse - and embarking upon the quest to understand what human suffering was and how we might transcend it.

In other words, pretty much all that is noble, extraordinary and true about human culture comes from an awareness of the presence of pain in the world, the need to understand it, comes to terms with it and, perhaps, overcome and transcend it. So why on earth do we in the West (and perhaps elsewhere, I can't speak for other cultures) have this hopeless enfeebled and false attitude towards it? Why do we pretend its not there and run for the hills when it happens to people around us? Why do not represent it in our media, our arts and (gulp) our popular culture, which tries to present a vision of the world in which everything is just one long, grinning, life-long party to which, if you are not invited, you are a loser, a pariah, someone who is as welcome as fart in a spacesuit? In a discussion with one friend about this very subject, I was asked 'Do you think we are the only ones who suffer or do you think everyone howls when they close the door and are alone?' I thought for a moment and said 'No. Everyone suffers. If they didn't, Hamlet would not be the most famous play in the world.' I said Hamlet, but I could just as easily have said King Lear, or Macbeth, or Othello or Measure for Measure. My point was that the theme of suffering in world art and literature gives the game away. It is part of human life. It is integral to who we are. No-one escapes it. And yet increasingly we as a society try to brush it under the carpet or magic it away. The question is: why?

As we rehearsed Vincent In Brixton, a report came out from the Mental Health Foundation about the subject of loneliness. As certain Scientists never hesitate to remind us, the Scientific method is, of course, 'the best way to look at the world' (not Richard Dawkins this time but Jim Al-Khalili). The report said that loneliness was 'increasing', that it might be genetic, that loneliness could lead to unhappiness and depression, that it could shorten life expectancy but that the best thing we a lonely person could do was make friends and socialize more. One part of the report posited the idea that a lack of social interaction was linked to an increase in loneliness. Astonishing, no? I am sure you will agree that this is exactly the kind of startling revelation that we need from Science. Once again, what no-one had ever understood was made clear by rigorous application of the Scientific Method. Thank heavens for that! I look forward to exciting new research into whether bears shit in the woods, whether the Pope is Catholic and whether Paris is a city.

Not everyone met the report with awe and respect. One psychologist appeared in the Guardian complaining that medical science was increasingly pathologising things which were a fundamental part of the human experience, making the situation worse by pushing people who felt lonely or depressed into the belief that there was something seriously wrong with them, that they were mentally ill and thus failing in society, when loneliness and depression have been parts of the human condition from the beginning of history. Suddenly the human race was being divided into two sections: the 'healthy', well adjusted, non-lonely, permanently happy people and the 'sick', lonely, unhappy and maladjusted. Quite naturally, the Scientists doing the testing didn't add themselves to the 'sick' part of society, as that would be subjective. The result, if we started to apply it to how our society was ordered, would be to make those 'sick' people feel even worse because of their loneliness. It would be like extending the most miserable part of adolescence, when you felt the most socially inept in the face of more confident kids, into a universal principle for the whole of your adult life. Its hard to see how helpful such a conclusion is!

Earlier in the year, around Christmas, Depression was the subject which erupted again in the media after the author Marion Keyes posted an entry on her Blog apologizing to her readers for the fact that she could not write because her Depression was making her almost incapable of moving, let alone thinking. Suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork supporting her and saying 'Thank God you have said all this! I suffer from Depression too and the social stigma is intolerable!' In the Daily Telegraph (I was staying with my Grandmother) had an article by a doctor admitting to his own Depression and the need for it to be better understood. But his own conclusions, couched as the best medical science could say on the matter, were useless. Depression was identifiable if you could tick any of ten behavioral patterns, which included not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, not wanting to eat, feeling listless and exhausted, lacking self-esteem etc and, it was suggested, might be exponentially linked to things such as bereavement, family trauma, sexual abuse, losing one's job etc etc. One could not help wondering if Medical Scientists studying the subject had ever actually had emotional lives. Of COURSE bereavement, sexual abuse and other quite naturally painful and traumatic events which happen in someone's life cause misery, suffering, despair and grief - events one can read about in the lives of pretty much ALL the artists and writers I mentioned above. Does this mean that anyone who feels miserable because of something terrible that has happened to them is suffering from Depression, is sick and needs medication? Or does it mean that we are human beings with vulnerable emotional lives struggling to make sense of what is happening to them?

On the London Underground, a Mental Health Organisation had Frunk Bruno and Tricia bravely speaking out about their own Depression and Bipolar Disorders. I was very proud of their bravery in doing so, but even then Frank was quoted as saying that Bipolar Disorder could be triggered by 'Bereavement, family trauma' and other things and once again I found myself thinking - NATURALLY! Traumatic events cause mental pain, just as an injured leg causes physical pain. The problem is that the solution to an injured leg - pain killers - does not necessarily work with mental pain. According to another article I read during Vincent In Brixton, the UK, the US and the Ukraine all register as having the highest levels of Depression in the world. The anti-depressants culture in the UK and the US is, as we know, astronomical, with people being prescribed drugs when they are unhappy or going through understandable pain and trauma rather than because of diagnosable clinical Depression. Meanwhile trials are increasingly showing that most anti-depressants are placebos. Oliver James, in a recent article, actually said that a lot of anti-depressants are usually sugar pills, of no more 'medical' value than those Dawkins et al claim homeopaths are giving people. Paul Bentall's book Doctoring the Mind argues the same thing - that Psychiatric Treatment is not shown to be effective in so many cases, whereas other processes, such as the more traditional 'Talking Cure' (ie Psychotherapy or Analysis) or CBT work better. Both Bentall and James argue that those old hoodooey things compassion and understanding are more effective than any number of drugs in helping people work through their pain. In other words, its not a medical condition but part of human life. We need to start from there. Statistics (sigh) suggest that 1 in 4 people suffer from some kind of mental illness in their life. If this is true (and it feels more like 4 in 4 in my experience, now that we seem to be ranking being unhappy as a mental illness at the moment), then why are we pretending its not happening? Or do we think that high levels of suicide, alcohol or drug abuse are all signs of a healthy society? People like Richard Dawkins attack religious people for seeking 'false comfort', but which form of 'false comfort' is more injurious to the health? Its hard to decide...

And where do you stop? The US and the UK are two of the most affluent and comfortable societies in the world, where the threat of sickness and disease is seriously reduced, where few of the privations suffered by our ancestors (and even most of our contemporaries in the world!) no longer threaten us, where life expectancy is higher than ever and yet we are among the most miserable and depressed people on the planet. What does that say about our society? What is the missing ingredient which we are denying ourselves which could perhaps fill this hole and make us complete? And why are we not helping ourselves to cope with it beyond drugs and medications? Could it be a fatal lack of attention to the reality of our inner lives - that so-called fairy tale of subjective human experience that some of our most prominent Scientist tell us simply doesn't exist? After all, what is it that makes us feel pain? Aspirations not met, love not received, lives not lived, hopes crushed, dreams unfulfilled, loss, lack of self-esteem, dignity taken away. These are the things that cause suffering and depression. Sure, there may be physiological things too, but the sheer widespread extent of human pain suggests that this cannot be the only explanation, which means that its not drugs which will solve our problems, but addressing the core aspects of who we are as human beings, what we need and what we hope for.

And this is my point. Like everyone else, I have gone through my own fair share of pain - emotional, mental and physic - and despair. No-one avoids it. At least I have not met anyone who does. In my work - theatre - I deal with it every day. One thing I am grateful about in my chosen profession is the fact that no great play shies away from the struggles that human experience brings, from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment and T S Eliot's The Waste Land by way of Shakespeare's King Lear or Ibsen's Ghosts. It has meant that the reality that life involves struggles and dark periods has never been kept from me. But the sense that when I was going through them I was failing or a pariah is something I have not escaped, simply because this is so all-pervading in our culture. The loneliness of pain is something we all know about. Most of us feel when we are in that dark place that we are utterly alone, failing as human beings, excluded from this mythical breed of human who HAS NO PROBLEMS. And its all crap. That darkness is part of us. It comes about when we experience disharmony, disappointment, pain, loss. It is as legitimate as our feelings of joy, happiness, wholeness and fulfillment. If the greatest of our minds had to deal with it - and it was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase 'Black Dog' for his Depression - why should we demonize ourselves when we do?

The reason is, of course, that it frightens us. No-one wants to experience despair and darkness. No-one wants pain. With almost superstitious foolishness, we feel that one person's pain might be catching, which means that so often in a crisis so many people run to avoid it. Its then when we find out who our true friends are. We don't stigmatize someone who has broken a leg or had an accident, but grief, despair, emotional pain - these are things which still seem to be viewed as some kind of draining and emotional moral failure. Why should this be so? Is it because its harder to deal with and opens abysses of recognition that we don't want to face? Perhaps. But in that case, what is it about ourselves and our own vulnerability that we are so afraid of?

But I am not going to glamourise suffering. Its horrendous. Of course we want to avoid it. But in doing so we have deprived ourselves of any means of DEALING with it when we can't. By denying the reality of suffering, we deny ourselves the ability to deal with it. But making ourselves feel like outcastes when it happens, we intensify the suffering and make it worse. By pretending our minds are just illusions, the product of solely physiological phenomena, bereft of purpose or meaning or even choice, we deny ourselves the possibility of meaning in our suffering and reduce ourselves to helpless automatons.

And there is more to it than that. In losing any sense of life as a journey, we have deprived ourselves of any possibility of growth, of any notion that we can face our suffering, work through it, understand it and perhaps heal it, becoming stronger and wiser in the process. This was the whole basis of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism et al. It was the whole basis of Greek culture, of Western Philosophy, of books like The Brothers Karamazov, or plays like King Lear or Waiting For Godot, of the Psychology of Jung or even Freud. Human beings have inner lives which, if not nourished and understood, wither and die, causing more suffering. Reduction of us to meat machines or economic units disenfranchises us from ourselves, making it harder and harder to deal with anything by taking away the structures that give us meaning. One does not need to have a concept of God or religion for meaning to be restored. For each individual life has meaning enough - indeed even the sensation of meaninglessness depends upon the sensation of meaning. And this leads me onto my main point, which is that life needs to be faced in its duality - possessed of joy and pain. Indeed the two are merely sides of the same coin, so perhaps not a duality but a unity. Deny the existence of one and the other becomes meaningless. As someone once said, laughter that never ends is madness, as we see from the endlessly manic capering of 'celebrities' on TV. What has Big Brother been than one long catalogue of attempts to prove that mindlessness and grinning inanity is what life is all about - that one can avoid pain if one just tries hard enough not to experience it? What is the myth of celebrity culture but the belief that if one is famous, beautiful, rich etc all one's problems will miraculously vanish? And yet why do people aspire to being a celebrity? Exactly because they have problems which they want to vanish, problems which just get splayed on every street corner once that celebrity is achieved. Davina McCall, the Patron Saint of Celebrity Culture, said that when she got her first MTV show she cried all night because the emptiness she hoped it would fill, the sense of worthlessness she thought it would counter, didn't happen. And yet she carried on making thousands by peddling the myth that screaming Celeb Culture was the thing to aspire to. Of what use was that?

Unless we face up to our humanity - unless we do as the Buddha did, which was to leave the gilded cage of an existence in which all human suffering is hidden from us (a more accurate description of how we live in the West I couldn't think of!) - we cannot hope to overcome our own suffering or live life to the full. Indeed, we cannot hope to grow. The artificial elimination of suffering - through drugs, television, by hiding away the sick, the poor, the old or the dying - is not the actual elimination of suffering. Nor am I suggesting we should be seeking out suffering or that it is a wonderful thing. God knows I saw suffering as we can't imagine in India! But I also found that in not hiding it away in India, it made it all the more easy to face. I only mean that we need to embrace what life is again, to embrace its painful side as well as its joyous side and, perhaps, seek to unite these two things again so that they cease to be at war with each other. A society which ignores its own suffering is a society which lies to itself. Of course, if we want to dispel the lie, it means facing up to a lot of painful truths about who and what we are, relinquishing the myth of control and admitting that we have messy, watery, frightening emotional and spiritual lives which we might have to engage with. But those of us who have been in those dark places - ask yourself, did it help pretending that they were not happening or avoiding talking to anyone about it? If we were open and honest about it, which is different from being self-indulgent about it, who knows what kind of transformations would we cause in ourselves?

Vast amounts of the human race face these problems every day. It isn't easy being human. But we cannot be anything else. Perhaps its time to try. Otherwise, perhaps, we will be left like Van Gogh with his last words: 'This sorrow will never end'. But facing it need not be terrifying. It could be the most creative thing we could do. After all, look what it brought out in Van Gogh. Few of us want to go to the extremes he went to, but its worth asking the question: if someone had offered him total peace if he would only give up on his Art, what would he have chosen?

No-one wants pain. But if we want peace, we have to accept it is there. It is the only way to deal with it…

Thursday, 25 June 2009


"A realised one sends out waves of spiritual influence in his aura, which draw many people towards him. Yet he may sit in a cave and maintain complete silence." - Ramana Maharshi

Well, I made it. Four months or incredible adventures across the vast landscape of India which took me from such epic sights as the Taj Mahal and the Great Temple of Thanjavur to the natural beauty of Karnataka and the backwaters of Kerala. I saw every religion known to man in operation - Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, even Bahai (ok so I didn't see Taoism or Shinto, but nobody's perfect) - and drank deep on the mystic wonder of the country. It wasn't all roses. I saw and smelt more shit and faeces than I care to remember, although even that experience came to be an integral part of the whole journey. I remember getting out of a bus to take a photo of the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen only to be assailed by a wall-like stench of stinking piss... But this was towards the end of my time there and so, almost completely assimilated, I realised then that it wasn't going to faze me anymore. Majestic beauty and utter squalor were all One... India had done its magic...

While I was out there, of course, I couldn't avoid the ubiquitous presence of the Guru. Everywhere you go in India Holy Men and Women abound. While such people barely exist over here, in India they are still very much part of the landscape. Indeed one of them, Sai Baba, claims that India is the last country on Earth where a Guru can completely incarnate. The argument is that the inherent spirituality of the people is still so communally great that, consciously or unconsciously, they can still provide an environment in which the soul of the Guru can fully realise itself. Inherent in this idea is that we are ALL involved in creating a spiritual condition in which things can grow. Thus a genuine Guru is an expression of a collective aspiration towards inner growth... Its a beautiful, anti-elitist idea and says something about how we are all able to make a contribution to the wellbeing of everyone else. But it takes a society which hasn't turned its back on the idea of spirituality to happen en masse. Makes you think about where we are in our part of the world with our rampant materialism and skepticism and what kind of environment that creates for the Spirit to soar....

Cultural comparisons aside (and they are always simplistic), the presence of the Guru is a key element of India. There are many bogus ones, many genuine ones and many scandalous ones with some Gurus, as we shall see, accused of being all three. Not all Gurus have enormous communities attached. Some remain obscure individuals in remote parts of the country with only a few dedicated followers. Others have international organisations attached. I encountered three on my travels, visiting two of their Ashrams and actually staying on one for the greater part of the week. To my delight, it turned out that the three I encountered, two of whom were dead, one living, were three of the most important in India, so I had the chance to encounter the singular power of these three men in person. I thought I would dedicate this post which marks my return to these three men - Ramana Maharshi, Sru Aurobindo Ghose and Sai Baba...

Ramana Maharshi was one of the most famous of all the twentieth century Saints and Gurus of India. So great was his reknown that Carl Jung, when he went to India, made a point of not visiting him. Not only did he not visit him, but he wrote a lengthy article about why he didn't visit him. What is interesting about this article is the fact that he doesn't really explain why he decided not to, except that he felt that India produced Holy Men like Ramana all the time, so there was no real reason to do so. Reading between the lines, one senses that the great man was a little nose out of joint at the fame surrounding Ramana Maharshi. Perhaps everywhere he went everyone said to him 'Oh you must visit his Ashram!' so often that he got a bit fed up with it. A shame, because although the article remains a rather wonderful description of India, it would have been wonderful to know what would have happened had the two men met...

Jung, genius though he was, was always a little suspicious of Indian thought. Although he admired the wisdom of the Buddha enormously, he was not so enamoured of Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which, to his mind, was the antithesis of his own explorations. For Jung, the purpose of existence was to realise the Self through the Individuation Process. Roughly speaking, this was the evolution of the Self, its development and growth into its fullest nature. It was not the annihilation of the Ego but the transformation of the Ego into something greater than itself, hence his interest in Alchemy with its vision of the transmutation of Lead, the Base Metal, into Gold. For Jung, the goal was to become truly oneself, images of which he included Christ, Buddha and other high expressions of mythic culture such as Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus, Odin and so on. His suspicion, or perhaps wariness about Hindu thought was that to him it was just the opposite, preaching the disappearance of the Ego/Self into the All. Thus instead of realising the Self, in his eyes Vedanta was about annihilating the Self, vanishing it into nothingness. To Jung, this was the antithesis of everything he stood for.

Which is a shame, because the teachings of Ramana Maharshi are not too far from this. His Ashram was the one I spent time on. It was a wonderful experience, even though I was there for only a few days. Had I booked months in advance I could have stayed longer but I wasn't able to even find out where the Ashram was until I got to India, and even then only through the fortuitous event that one of my friends was visiting it while I was in Coorg at the School I was teaching. It is located at the foot of Arunachala, or the Red Mountain, near the town of Tiruvannamalai, a centre of pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu. Arunachala is revered as a physical embodiment of Siva in his guise as the element of Fire (Agni). Legend has it that he manifested as an infinite lingam, or column of flame to prove to Vishnu and Brahma how superior he was to them. Every year in November Sadhus light an enormous pyre there to commemorate this event and, down below in the town, there is an enormous, white-towered Temple honouring Siva as Divine Fire, one of a network of four other Temples in Tamil Nadu which represent his other guises as Divine Water, Air, Earth and Spirit.

Ramana Maharshi didn't found the Ashram, it grew up around him. He arrived at Arunachala as a boy of 16 having had a life-transforming near-death experience which made him understand his existence as Pure Consciousness. I will post his own famous description of the event in the Comments box as a note (1) but, in a nutshell, he underwent a living experience of death in which he felt his body go numb and inert like a corpse. Immediately as this happened, he realised the truth that his body was only a temporary vehicle for something more eternal within - the Higher Consciousness which the Vedantists call the Atman, or World Soul, of which our own individual Atma, or Soul, is part. Suddenly Ramana Maharshi lost all fear of death and from then onwards dwelt in an awareness of this state of Pure Consciousness. He tried to continue life as a schoolboy of 16 and then, thanks to a vision or sense of yearning, found himself leaving his home town of Madurai and undergoing a pilgrimage to Arunachala where he spent the rest of his life, having been guided to the place he needed to be.

Its worth taking a pause here and explaining a little bit about Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which is the uniting factor of the three Gurus I am discussing here. The word Vedanta stems from the Vedas, the name given to the holy hymns and prayers which form the foundation of Hindu culture. These prayers were 'channelled' by ancient Brahmin Priests of the Aryan conquerors who first poured down into the Indus valley from the Himalayas millenia ago, Veda simply meaning 'Knowledge' (interestingly, the same term for the Western concept of Gnosis and, in a sense, Kabbalah, which means 'received tradition'). Vedanta is the movement or 'Way' which grew out of these divinely inspired hymns and the later Upanishads which supplemented their wisdom. Vedanta, to the surprise of most people who view Hinduism as essentially Polytheistic, is fundamentally Monotheistic. The Vedas and the Upanishads posit the existence of a single Spirit without Form or Limit known as Brahman. This Spirit is universal, omnipresent, immanent and transcendent, containing and sustaining everything, even the Gods. Brahma, Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesh. Lakshmi, Kali, Durga et al are seen as avatars of Brahman, expressions of this single Spirit which is everywhere. The idea is very much like the Ain Soph of Kabbalah, the One of the Hermetica, the Concealed God of Apophatic Theology, the Tao of Lao Tzu, the Great Spirit of the Lakotah Indians etc etc. Brahman is found in everything, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere and, most powerfully, in the human soul, as the Upanishads reveal. This is the source of their inherent beauty, a beauty which is also sublimely simple, for the Upanishads reveal the essential truth that Brahman is in us just as we are in Brahman. When we know this, and the knowledge is not dependent upon rituals or obedience or penance, 'we go to God' as the sages say.

Vedanta was of special interest to the Quantum Physicists, most particularly Nobel Prize Winners Erwin Schroedinger and Eugene Wigner for a very simple reason: Brahman was defined as Consciousness, or rather Universal Consciousness. The three key terms with which the Vedantists describe Brahman are SAT, CHIT and ANANDA which translate variously as Being, Consciousness and Bliss or Existence, Awareness, Joy (keen syncretists might want to think of the parallels between this trinity and the Trinity of Christianity). The central term, CHIT, is the key one here, as Consciousness is the prime element of Brahman. Given that the Quantum Physicists were keenly interested in the role Consciousness played in the operation and cohesion of the Universe, the Vedantic concept of CHIT was especially important to them. So it was to Ramana Maharshi and, as we shall see, the two other Gurus I encountered.

Ramana's fundamental teaching was that everything was Pure Consciousness. Indeed, Pure Consciousness was the only Reality. Understanding of this was found in the Atma, or Self, also translated as the Soul. If the Seeker could truly understand this, then the antinomies and conflicts of life would come to an end and he or she would dwell in a constant state of ANANDA, or Bliss, as Maharshi himself did. Thus the actual teachings he gave were very simple, often stubbornly so, for Maharshi was very hostile to all esoteric discussion or enquiry which distracted from the pursuit of this knowledge of the Self. Although he knew his way around all the different concepts of Vedanta, he discouraged speculation on Creation, the Nature of Reality, Reincarnation etc, not because he thought they were false, but because he believed what he called 'Self-Enquiry' was the true route to what he was teaching.

'Self-Enquiry' was the exploration of one's own Consciousness. As one's Atma was the seat of this Consciousness and the bridge to the Atman (World Soul) which was One with Brahman, Maharshi urged his followers to ask 'Who is asking the question?' - in other words to go inwards beyond the waking self into the Brahmanic Self which was behind it. Vedanta recognises four levels of Consciousness, each of which is contained within the four syllables of the Sacred Word OM, pronounced AUM. These levels are Waking Consciousness (A), Sleeping Consciousness (U), Dreaming Consciouness (M) and Brahmanic or Cosmic Consciousness (the Silence after uttering the Word). By asking 'How may the Knower be Known', by passing through the different levels of Consciousness, back through all the different illusions which we call the 'I' to the Universal Consciousness, the Seeker would discover the Brahmanic state of Pure Consciousness that each of us truly is. At this moment, Liberation would occur and ANANDA would fill the Soul... As Ramana said, with characteristic simplicity: "Just be the Self, that is all."

Maharshi lived and taught in the Ashram and in two caves higher up on the Mountain where he sometimes retired with only his Mother for company for extended periods of meditation. He never wrote anything and most of the books that contain his teachings were compiled by Disciples who transcribed his different conversations. If one is looking for elaborate cosmological systems or detailed moral teachings, one is likely to be disappointed, as Maharshi tended to turn every conversation back to his central point. Some listeners found themselves baffled as he tried to head them off from fruitless questions about, for instance, how Reincarnation worked. On one occasion, when a listener was expressing frustration that he had not yet had a vision of Siva, he said to him: 'What is more real? The vision of Siva or the person having the vision of Siva? Ask first who is having the vision.' As an example of how he would try to bring back any inquirer to his central truth it is probably unsurpassed.

Even such conversations were rare as more often than not, Maharshi preferred to 'teach' by sitting in silence among his followers, merely emanating his condition of dwelling in a state of Pure Consciousness. To we skeptical Westerners, this sounds ridiculous, mere poppycock designed to dupe the gullible at worst, a way of avoiding doing anything at best. But I can say from experience that a visit to the Ashram reveals the reality of what these silent teachings must have been. Rudolf Steiner, in his writings about Christ and the Buddha, speaks of how when the soul of these individual incarnate in physical bodies, they do important work but the work is, by necessity, impeded by the obviously obscuring nature of human communication. When they die, their physical bodies give way to an etheric presence - ie the earthly Christ becomes the Cosmic Christ or Holy Spirit, for instance - and the work of the former individual takes on a new, more universal, intuitive but at the same time more easily accessible and effective mode. The physical presence gives way to the all-pervading presence. If this is so, it explains the extraordinary atmosphere of the Ashram and its Meditation Room in particular...

The Ashram is approached by a ten or twenty minute auto-rickshaw ride from the bus station of Tiruvannamalai, which, like so many small Indian towns, is a mixture of wreckage, chaos, suffering and squalor but also warmth, vibrancy and life. The road outside the gates are lined by shops, beggars, crumbling temples and the whacked-out looking Sivaite Sadhus who tend them. Inside the Ashram the atmosphere is infinitely calm, as if noise and sound tread respectfully around the trees and buildings within. The only real noise one hears are the sudden, cacophanous outbursts of the many peacocks and peahens that roam freely there along with the monkeys that bounce around regularly. These peacock choruses are such a prominent feature of the place that they even found their way onto the intro of Kula Shaker's first single, GOVINDA, a song to Krishna put to a rock beat ( They roam around the small collection of huts and buildings that make up the Ashram, which include the administrative centre, complete with bookshop, the Temple to Siva, which includes a shrine to Ganesh and a monument to Ramana Maharshi himself, a dining hall, the Samadhis, or mausoleums of deceased Saints and Teachers, some other hust which serve as accomodation for the Priests and elders of the community and the Meditation Room.

In keeping with the spirit of the man, there is no strict regimen to the Ashram. What programme of events there is fits on a single piece of paper, most of which describes meal times and a few Pujas (ceremonies) and daily readings. No compulsory Yoga classes, no doctrines or teachings being pushed. Instead, one is allowed to roam free, respectful of others, to experience the place as one wants. The effect is to plunge you into a wonderfully calm, contemplative mood, in which nothing is expected of you and so everything becomes possible. One can sit in the main Siva Temple, made in exquisite marble, meditate, or simply watch the people coming and going, praying and circumambulating the shrine. It is the same for the monument to Maharshi and the other Temple building. One can listen to the readings, walk the shrine oneself, drink in the Vedic hymns sung by the Priests at key moments (even without knowing the Sanskrit the effect of the sound is incredible) or even, if one is so inclined, stay in one's room, thinking, resting and reading. At the opposite end of the scale, its possible to pass through a gate at the back of the Ashram and walk up the mountain to the two small caves where Maharshi used to live and meditate for years on end. Be warned, its something of a trek, and given the baking sun, make sure you take water. Oh, and watch out for the 'helpful' guides!

Meals in the Ashram are communal. One sits on the floor with everyone else and eats off a banana leaf food which is so delicious it baffles the mind. In fact these communal meals were a highlight of my stay there. The group feeling of equality, friendship, lack of pretention and togetherness was wonderful and gave me an insight into what life in a monastery or special community might have once been like.

But the real sense of presence is felt in the Meditation Room. It is here that the true magic of Ramana Maharshi is most tangible and where one understands what his 'silent sermons' must have been to experience. I went in on my first day, aware of the Room's reputation thanks to a leaflet my friend had given me which described the overwhelming feeling of the 'sense of Presence' there. I still wasn't prepared for the enormous emotional experience of going in.

It is a tiny room. When he was alive, this was where Ramana Maharshi 'held court' as it were, reclining upon the bed in one corner, while his followers and disciples sat and asked him questions. Now he is gone a life-size painting of him in the Room has taken his place. The powerful atmosphere there was indeed as tangible as I was told. As with the Aurobindo Ashram which I will get to in my next post, the silence and concentration there was something I had never experienced before. I can only describe it as a kind of 'negative silence', a silence beyond silence or below silence. The people within were so steeped in their own meditations that the air felt full of a kind of hidden energy, as if the air had been made especially heavy by the collective concentration of the people within. One didn't even have to meditate to have a profound experience and some of us just sat there, looking about us, staggered by the power of the emotions we were having. I have never been very good at mediatating, but here I could do so and the effect was extraordinary.

The sense of Ramana Maharshi being there in some way was absolutely real and didn't diminish each time I returned to the Room. On each occasion I was struck be the power of the presence in the room, which increasingly felt like it was in another world. The people there were often so deep in meditation it felt like they were floating outside their bodies, or at least in a very altered state. The sense of communication with something deep, profound and benign was very moving. I myself felt that some kind of dialogue was going on just below the frequency of waking consciousness. So powerful and real was it that if you asked me today, I would tell you that I had met Ramana Maharshi. I understood easily what the books meant when they said that often he would just sit there giving off his energy to all who were present....

I was only able to stay at the Ashram for a few days but I will always be grateful for the experience. I will never forget it, or the different people and Gurus I met there and around it. Tiruvannamalai is one of the holiest towns in Tamil Nadu and Maharshi's Ashram still one of the most revered and respected in India. Its a place where one feels genuinely welcome, not coralled or patronised or told what to think or do. The people I met there were all very genuine. There was none of the false spirituality I encountered in other places of the dreadlocked, beautiful-body, yoga-on-the-beach type, nothing New Agey or bogus, just something very pure and simple and, dare I say it, humourous, as if Ramana Maharshi's welcoming, slightly wry, crooked smile was glowing in every corner of the walls...

"That pure consciousness which is the reality, and which shines without a break, as "I AM" when the mind becomes calm, is the supreme bliss." - Ramana Maharshi

Friday, 16 January 2009


As of next week, I start my voyages around the world. I fly from London Heathrow to Mumbai via Kuwait (!!!) and will travel from there down to Mysore where I will be teaching homeless kids in a remote village somewhere for about a month. After that I will be journeying around India and possibly beyond...

I will be keeping up this Blog from time to time should some mighty ideas occur to me but will also be starting up a new Blog which will just be about my Palin-like adventures in the Far East (that's Michael Palin, not Sarah Palin). Its called THE FLIGHT OF PEGASUS and will be at:

If I have time and find myself at an internet cafe anywhere I will keep the stories coming!

Hope to see you there! Wish me luck!

Pegasus x

Monday, 12 January 2009


I wouldn't normally do this, but I have been asked by various friends to put this on my Blog. I wrote it a few days ago on Facebook. Well, here goes:

Amidst the chaos and pain of what is going on in Gaza at the moment, surrounded by the shrill horror and outrage being expressed all over the world, its very hard to keep one's feet on the ground, to hold onto one's perspective and to recognise that in this crucial moment, if we do not keep hold of our sanity, all hell might break loose (if it hasn't already). In a decade steeped in violence, in which hate-mongers on every side have pursued their illegitimate goals seemingly with any kind of international pressure or law removed, this event in the Middle East still doesn't feel like one of many. We have had the Second Intifada, Sept 11, Afganistan, Iraq, July 7, Darfur, the Bali bombings, Zimbabwe, 2006's assault on Lebanon, the violence in Tibet, the violence in Burma, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Georgia and Mumbai, but still the conflict in Gaza seems or being made to seem different. The fury is greater than any of the others, the desire to punish Israel greater than ever before, the condemnation greater than before and, dangerously, the determination on both sides to throw out all humanity and drive this violent confrontation to its bitter end worse than ever. I myself have been caught in stupid and futile arguments with pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians blind to the suffering of their opponents. Cheerleaders for Hamas, cheerleaders for the IDF seem united only in their indifference to the reality of the deaths of innocents on either side. With the world poised so precariously, as we close a decade marked by immense tension between nations who want to identify Islam as the enemy and nations who want to identify non-Muslims as the enemy, this conflict threatens to drive us all mad and push us all into further bloodlust and killing in the deranged belief that somehow this will make the world a better place. So I felt that I, at least, wanted to say something about this present conflict, if for no other reason than to have some kind of personal catharsis of my own. A million words have been spent on Israel and Palestine. A few more won't make any difference. So bear with me, even though it might be long.

Before I start, to pre-empt hysterical attacks by frothing at the mouth nuts who will mistake my argument as anti-Israeli or anti-Palestinian, let me make my position clear. I hate this violence. I want it to end. I want the children to stop dying and I don't want to hear any more justification on either side for killing. I want an Israel and a Palestine living side by side in security and peace. I want the wider 'players' who have spent this decade stoking this conflict and making sure it doesn't get resolved fairly - America, Syria, Iran - to back off and allow a settlement to be forced through. We are all hoping that Obama will make moves in this direction. Alas, the problem seems intractable. But for all the screamers and shouters out there, let me make clear that my position is both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. So shut up before you even begin to open your mouths. Or at least read the whole of what I have written and think about it before you begin to fire off.

So what do I want to say? I want to say something reasonable about this conflict, to remind us of the bigger picture before we all go mad and do something terrible we will regret for ever. Unless we keep our heads, we cannot expect anyone on the ground to. And we are looking at the consequences of not doing that right now.

First of all, what are the origins of Zionism? And what is Zionism? Well, first of all, the term 'Zionist' simply means someone who thinks there should be a state of Israel, or a state with a 'Jewish character' in the same way that France is a nation with a 'French character' or Japan is a nation with a 'Japanese character'. That's it. Within that definition are a host of shades of meaning. The original Zionists, for instance, were secularists and socialists, who wanted a secular nation with a Jewish character built along egalitarian lines in which Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims etc could live together much as the Indian National Congress of Ghandi and Nehru wanted for India. Let us call this Left Wing Zionism. This tradition was the dominant one in Israel until the 70s, when the balance of power tilted towards the Right, with Likud, lead by Begin, took power, ushering in the growth of what we might call Right Wing Zionism, which is inherently nationalistic, often bellicose, and sees the whole of what it calls 'Greater Israel' as the destined property of the Israelis. Proponents of this have included Begin, Shamir, Netenyahu, Sharon et al, men who believe that the West Bank and Gaza is theirs, that the Palestinians are a lesser or at least an 'alien' people and who have always been more prepared to use violence to further their ends. It was Netenyahu who began the process of ruination of the Oslo Accords after winning the election against Peres, following the death of Rabin (an election won with the help of Hamas who shattered Israeli belief in the Accords with a lethal series of suicide attacks during the campaign) and it was Sharon who, in alliance with Bush, sent in the tanks against the Palestinians during the Second Intifada (having triggered it by visiting the Temple Mount), destroyed the infrastructure of the PA, built the Security Wall which snaked into Palestinian territory and did everything he could to bypass the Palestinians in negotiating the future boundaries of the State of Israel.

Oops. Bit of a rant there. My point is that when people babble about 'Zionism', they nearly always mean the Right Wing kind, or their fantasy of the Right Wing kind. All Left Wing Zionist opposition to it - from Labour and Meretz, from the artistic and intellectual community, from the many Human Rights movements within Israel such as Peace Now - is ignored. All Israelis are tarred as would-be Sharonites. But this is simply not true. The word 'Zionism' is an almost meaningless term in telling you what someone believes. Daniel Barenboim, for instance, calls himself a Zionist but was a personal friend of Edward Said and insisted on giving concerts for the Palestinians even during the Intifada. Artists such as Joshua Sobol, the Israeli playwright who wrote the great play GHETTO, has spent his life working with Palestinians and Israelis, protesting against the Zionist Right and even speaking in the Knesset in protest against the violence going on in the Territories. And then there are the Refuseniks, the young Israeli soldiers who will defend Israel but refuse to serve in the Territories. The truth of Israel is intensely complex. It serves no-one to lump every Israeli into the group-all term 'Zionist' as if this word effectivly means 'Jewish Nazi Who Wants To Kill Palestinians'. And yet so often this is what happens.

Where did Zionism come from? Well its founding father, as it were, was Theodore Herzl, an Austrian Jew who kicked off the dream of a Jewish homeland as a political reality in the 19th Century. Zionism is so often viewed in isolation that it is almost always forgotten that it emerged in a climate where movements for national self-determination were gathering ground all over the world. In Europe, movements of national unity and independence were gaining ground in Germany, Italy and what was then the Austrian Empire. 1871 saw the founding of the unified states of Germany and Italy, four years after the political campaigns of Ferenc Deak had negotiated the double-monarchy of Austro-Hungary. After the failed rebellion of 1848, the Hungarian leadership had been agitating for equal rights within the Empire and, rather than lose everything, the Austrian Imperial family agreed to the compromise of a dual administration. Thus all over Europe formally oppressed or divided people were demanding representation. And not only in Europe. In India the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence rocked the British establishment to its core and forced it to reorder its rule of the country. People wanted freedom and nationhood. It was in this climate that Herzl found himself inspired to agitate for a Jewish nation. Zionism didn't just sprout out of nowhere. It followed a logic. If a lot of other stateless or disenfranchised people could have a nation, why not the Jews? It kind of makes sense. And indeed its still a question I would like to hear a satisfactory answer to from those who call themselves anti-Israeli!

Nor was Zionism initially violent or aggressive. At the time of the beginning of Zionist immigration to the Middle East, there was no Israel or even Palestine. The region we now refer to was a backwater in the sprawling Ottoman Empire. The early Zionists hoped that as they appeared in the region, developed it and helped it to prosper, the indigenous Arabs would see the benefits and let a Jewish state take form. Deeply naive, perhaps, but it was what they told themselves. Violent Zionism didn't begin until the interwar years, when a Zionist settler called Jabotinsky developed the Iron Wall doctrine in reaction to the attacks Jews were experiencing at the hands of Arabs throughout the 20s and 30s. The official Zionist leadership - Weizmann etc - didn't like Jabotinsky because of his miltancy and still sought to find a way of co-existing with the Arabs and winning a state through careful development and negotiation. Jabotinsky' s view as one of those who took up arms to protect his fellow settlers, was that the Arab world would, quite understandably, never agree to a Jewish state and would oppose it militarily. The only way to force them to come to an accomodation with the Jews was to present an 'Iron Wall' - in other words to make the Jews so invincible that the Arabs would eventually realise that they could not be defeated by violence and would have to come to the table. What is significant about Jabotinsky, however, is that, unlike his successors such as Netenyahu or Sharon, he didn't believe in perpetual war. At some point negotiation would happen, even after a lot of fighting. At some point the time would come for a settlement.

At first Jabotinsky was expelled from the official Zionist movement who saw him as a violence- monger and an enemy to their efforts to develop peaceful relations with the Arabs. But inevitably as the violence escalated, even the official movement began to take on board some of his ideas. They never allowed the extremist parties such as Irgun and the Stern Gang to be part of the fold (something anti-Zionists ignore or forget when they attack Israel's history) but the Iron Wall doctrine still became a central part of Israeli policy. From 1948 to 1973 and, theoretically throughout the 90s, Israel's Labour Party operated in the belief that the day would come when no more wars would have to be fought and a peace could be made with the Arab world. Indeed, the peace treaties with Egypt in 1977 (sealed by Likud but prepared by Labour) and with Jordan in 1994 suggest that their belief might have been within reach - as were the optimistic days of the early Oslo Accords. But since the Second Intifada, the possibility of any kind of peace must seem so remote now. But its worth knowing about this Iron Wall policy when evaluating the Israeli 'disproportionate response' to Palestinian and Arab attacks. Israel operates with the belief that it is a tiny nation surrounded by enemies. It can only keep its position in these circumstances by maintaining total miltary superiority. If it shows any weakness, it opens itself up to attacks. Thus retaliation has always been a key element in Israeli foreign policy. Negotiations will only happen when they feel secure and in a position of strength, which is why the failure of the 2006 Lebanese War was so disastrous for them and why they are going all out against Hamas. Once the Myth of Israeli invincibility is lost, they believe they will be wiped away. This is not a justification for Israel's actions, its an explanation of the psychology behind it. Expecting the Israelis to operate along the standards of European nations who have lived in peace for 60 years is a hiding to nothing and a hypocrisy. They live under immense real and imagined pressure. Unless they are handled with this awareness, nothing will move forward. The Israelis will not negotiate unless they feel safe. And they don't.

The source of this 60 year problem is, of course, the famous (or infamous, depending upon your view) Balfour Declaration of 1917. In this Declaration, the Zionists secured from Balfour an expression of support from the British Empire for the establishment of a Jewish homeland so long as the religious or political rights of the Palestinians were protected. The British made this Declaration for two reasons. Firstly, they needed the Zionists' support in the region in their campaign against the Ottoman Turks, who were then allies of Germany and Austro-Hungary in the First World War. Secondly, because they never thought they would have to keep it as a promise. At the same time as the British were promising the Zionists a nation, they were promising the Arab tribes self-determination and nationhood if they agreed to help them against the Ottomans as well. Who cam forget the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence demands of Allenbrooke assurances for the promise he has made to the Arabs that they can have independence after the war? Allenbrooke hesitates for a moment, his face drops and then suddenly he remembers himself, smiles and then says enthusiastically 'Of course'. In the end, Britain never kept any of its promises either to the Arabs or the Jews. Instead, after WW1, France and Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire into protectorates and client states. Britain got Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan while France got Syria and Lebanon. The aims of Arab Nationalism got nowhere and the Zionists got nothing. At the root of this conflict, then, lies the duplicity of the British Empire.

And it doesn't stop there. Britain held onto Palestine as a Protectorate until 1947 when the Arab-Jewish violence became too much. At the same time, the Zionists ,driven to desperation, had embarked upon a campaign (yes, a terrorist campaign) against the British authorities to force them to keep their promise in some way. All this came to a head in 1947 when Britain threw up its hands and passed the problem onto the UN. Its a common lie that Israel was created out of the world's desire to make amends for the horror of the Holocaust. This simply isn't true. If this was true, why didn't it happen in 1945 or 46? In actuality, the Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were being kept in camps all over Europe, with no-one willing to take them in - not America, not Britain, not anywhere. Most of them were told by the Allied authorities to go home to the countries they had come from - Poland, Russia, the Baltic States etc - the very populations which had enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis to have them exterminated. Attempts by Jewish refugees to get to Palestine were blocked by the British. Driven mad by desperation, the Jews in the region embarked on the campaign of violence against the British authorities, a campaign not, alas, that different to that waged by Palestinians in the Territories over the last two decades. It was when all this became unmanageable that Britain gave up and, as with the issue of India and Pakistan, pulled out unceremoniously without ensuring a clean or just handover behind them.

The UN came up with an utterly unworkable plan which created a binational Israeli-Palestinian state in the region divided up like four quarters of a single state with Israel taking the top left and bottom right parts and the Palestinians taking the top right and bottom left. There were hopes that this would force the two communities to work together economically and politically. Some say that the plan was deliberately set up to fail. It was expected that the Arab states would reject the plan (which they did) and invade, driving the Zionists out. Indeed, the Arab armies were largely armed by the countries which had drafted the UN Declaration, while an arms embargo was put on Israel. The Jordanian Army was led by British officers (the famous Gen Glubb Pasha was head of the Jordanian Legion). The only nation to supply Israel with arms was, you will be surprised to learn, the Soviet Union under Stalin, who hoped it could be used as an ally against America in the region. Alas, this plan failed, although contrary to popular belief, America only became a staunch ally of Israel in 1967 after it defeated the Soviet-backed Arab states. Before then, it had remained either neutral or hostile, as in 1956 when it opposed the British-French-Israeli campaign against Egypt over the Suez Canal. From then until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region was another Cold War battlefield, just like South Africa, with Israel backing Saudi Arabia and Israel and the Soviet Union backing Egypt, Syria and Jordan at different times. Its no coincidence that the Oslo Accords happened at the same time as Apartheid had come down. The PLO and the Arab states no longer had the USSR behind them and America no longer saw itself as needing to support an ally in its struggles as it had done now that the old enemy had disappeared. George Bush Snr pushed forward the peace in South Africa, Clinton went for a peace between Israel and Palestine. In a time when there was no Big Bad Guy waiting in the wings, peace seemed in reach. Again, its no coincidence that, under Bush and the so-called 'War On Terror' support for the Right Wing in Israel from Washington has been unquestioning. Maybe without a wider peace, a specific peace in the region will not happen.

There is, then, a history to this conflict. One which we forget (or don't know about) but which the people on the ground do not. Indeed, it informs everything they do. The chaos of the 1948 War, in which there was an exchange of populations similar to that between India and Pakistan over Partition, is surrounded by claims and counter claims of ethnic cleansing and duplicity. About 300000 Jews were driven out of their homes by the Arab armies at the same time as 300000 Palestinians were driven out of theirs by the Israelis, a fact almost wholly forgotten, largely because the difference was that the Jewish refugees had a home to go to while the Palestinians didn't. Since then, after 60 years, the Palestinians remain far away from their dream of a homeland. Even their fellow Arab nations have not allowed them self-determination. Between 1948 and 1967 the West Bank and Gaza were annexed by Egypt and Jordan. Palestinian refugees in all the neighbouring states are not taken in or given citizenship, with the exception, now, of Jordan. Instead they languish in camps every bit as squalid as those in the Occupied Territories. Wars have been conducted against them by Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, often because of Arafat's attempts to overthrow the governments of those countries. In the Territories, the Palestinian people have been bombed, shot at, starved, imprisoned, blockaded, bulldozed and had settlement after settlement built on their land (this is an inescapable and unjustifiable fact even for those who are pro-Israel). They have been allowed precisely two elections - one in the 90s which Arafat won, cancelling any others which he thought he would lose, and one in 2005 which Hamas won. Even if one is a supporter of the state of Israel, it is hard to look at videos of the living conditions of the two peoples and not be disgusted by the disparity in comfort. What the Palestinians have had to put up with is hopelessly unfair to say the least. It is no wonder that the population has been driven almost mad with fear, suffering, pain and rage.

At the same time not a day or week has gone by in the whole history of Israel without some kind of attack across their borders. They have had to fight four wars against their neighbours - in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 - all against overwhelming odds (there were more tanks on the Syrian Border in 1973 than on the entire Russian front when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941) and have become embroiled in Lebanon again and again since the 80s. Meanwhile they have had to defend themselves against constant border attacks over the years from the PLO, Hizbollah and Hamas and relentless suicide attacks throughout the 90s, especially during the period of supposed negotiations during the Oslo Accords. Meanwhile on the airwaves, threatening proganda pours their way from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and God knows where from. Land-grab or not, the Security Wall is a symbol of how terrified and despairing the Israeli population is, however tough and defiant they may appear to the world. Nobody stops to think about the fact that unique among the nations of our planet, Israel is the only country which has some form of security wall around all its borders. It is totally encased in defences of concrete or barbed-wire and wood, protecting it from attacks from Hizbollah in the north, Hamas in the south and suicide bombs all along the border of the West Bank. If Israel do end up holding on to the Palestinian land west of the Wall, it will come at a cost. People often liken Gaza to a prison. Israel is destined to become one big bunker or fortress, or, dare I say it, one big concentration camp. It was Begin, I think, who described the borders of Israel as the borders of Auschwitz. Seen from an Israeli point of view, it is tragic that, having escaped the original borders of Auschwitz to found their own state, they find themselves hunkered down behind another military boundary, a terrible physical symbol of how the Jewish people still see themselves in the world - friendless and needing to defend themselves at all costs as no-one else will do it for them.

None of this is a defence of Israel or justification for 300 dead Palestinian children. What it is is an attempt to get into the heads of the two communities, to try to understand where they are coming from and why they do as they do. Because if we don't, if we go on thinking that the Palestinians or the Israelis just wake up every morning deciding, without any cause, to be violent, we will get nowhere. If we continue to believe that all Palestinians are rabid, unnegotiatable-with lunatics bent on killing or all Israelis are jackbooted racists barely restraining themselves from massacring all the Palestinians, we will go on lying to ourselves and justifying any act of terror and violence. One of the ugliest elements of arguments over this issue is the tendency of otherwise rational people to pick over every death and give it a relative value. Israelis should put up with rockets and suicide bombs because they are an evil country. Palestinians should put up with their schools being blown up with their children in them because they voted for Hamas. Its no good. In all the hysteria and condemnation over this issue, the calls for economic blockades, for punishment of the Rogue State of Israel, for support for the wiping out of Hamas, the marches for Israel and against Palestine or for Palestine and against Israel, where are the voices which are calling for peace, for negotiation, for a condemnation of violence on both sides? In short, where is the march in favour of BOTH Israel and Palestine?

Why is it impossible to recognise the legitimacy of both peoples' calls for justice, security, honour? Why should the Palestinians have to live in squalor, their rights taken away, with no home? Why should the Israelis have to live in a constant state of readiness to protect themselves against threats from Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran and Syria? When the Saudis pushed forward their Peace Plan again last year, Iran wasted no time coming forward to say it wanted no part of it. We all want a solution, but it will not just depend upon Israel and Palestine. The wider players will also have to agree to stop using the conflict as a way of increasing their control of the region.

What no-one seems to understand is that whatever the outcome, security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians is going to involve them having to find way to get on with each other. A military solution is impossible, as everyone knows but will not accept. The short-term catharsis of violence gives both sides the illusion they are doing something when in fact they are not. Hamas and Hizbollah's dream of destroying Israel and creating an Islamic Republic is never going to happen. Likud's dream of a Greater Israel without any Palestinians is never going to happen. Besides all that, there is absolutely no way that an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing side by side will not find themselves intimately interwoven politically, culturally and economically. The two sides are never going to get away from each other. The only way is to find some means of living together. But while we wait for Hell to freeze over before either side realises it, we will just go on seeing this futile carnage and have to endure the hysterical and hypocritical bleating from supporters of both that they are the real victims, that their acts of violence are justified while the other's is not and that, somehow, a dead Israeli child is more or less important than a dead Palestinian one, depending upon which set of killers you are waving a flag for.

The problem is that for anyone other than an Israeli or a Palestinian, this conflict is a kind of abstraction or political game. For the protagonists, it is real. Everyone enjoys getting on their high horse about this issue, demonstrating their indignation, thrilling themselves by their moral righteousness about their anti-Imperialist stance against the Zionist Entity or refusing to back down in front of 'terrorists' and the Axis of Evil. None of it does a shred of good. The only way is going to be negotiation. We know its hard. After almost a decade of knife-edge wheeler-dealing during the nineties, with the uselessness and corruption of the Palestinian Authority's leadership on one side, and the capriciousness and impossibility of the Israeli electoral system on the other, the Oslo Accords dissolved into disaster and the Second Intifada. People wanted violence more than they wanted accord. The tragedy is they were very close. I have read the documents on the Taba negotiations and they were a breath away from sorting it out. But violence won. The Israelis blame Arafat, the Palestinians blame Barak. We know negotiations are hard. But they are the only way.

Here is what I want to happen:

1) A ceasefire now in Gaza, before either side can claim a victory. That way neither side can lose face. If Israel get bogged down and cannot defeat Hamas, it will be a disaster for them as everyone will know they can be beaten. If they wipe out Hamas and flatten Gaza, it will never be forgotten or forgiven by the Palestinians. Stop the fighting now. Israel lets humanitarian aid in and lifts the blockade while Hamas agrees to cease firing rockets. All hostilities will cease. If need be an international force polices the borders, as Israel has asked for.

2) Once a ceasefire has been established the main international powers involved, or the Quartet as we call it, pushes forward with a non-partisan plan to bring both sides to the table for negotiations. This will involve Israel recognising Hamas as a democractically elected government and Hamas recognising Israel's right to exist. People tend to forget that Israel has been asking Hamas to do that. If Hamas are a democractically elected leadership and so should be recognised, so should Israel be recognised by Hamas, as it too has a democratically elected government.

The Palestinians should be represented by a power-sharing Government consisting of Fatah and Hamas, as was possible a while ago. Unless the Palestinians are united, they will never hope to get anywhere with Israel.

3) Taking either the Taba Negotiations of the Saudi Peace Plan, negotiations need to begin involving all the regional players - Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt etc - to create a comprehensive and just peace for all parties. Incentives MUST be given by the international community to both sides to compromise and find a way towards common ground. If need be, threats of economic sanctions will have to be used to gain leverage, although it would be great to avoid this. George Bush Snr managed to force Shamir to the table with the Palestinians in the 90s by threatening to freeze the US subsidy to the country. If any party - and I mean ANY party, not just the Israelis if anyone thinks that is what I am saying here - refuses to cooperate, such leverage will have to be used.

4) All violence will have to cease on all sides - Hamas, Hizbollah, Israel etc. Both Israelis and Palestinians must be enabled to live without the threat of death coming through their door at any moment.

The only way in which there will be a solution is if this concerted, unified effort takes place. Everyone is hoping that Obama will embark on such a process once he is in power. But no-one knows if this will happen or if a settlement will be possible. All we do know is that there is no other way. The signs are not terrific. The arch-revenant of the Right, Netenyahu, the architect of the destruction of Oslo (and, some say, one of the voices which helped lead to the atmosphere of extremism that lead to Rabin's death), looks like returning like some creature from the Living Dead. Clinton couldn't make him play ball. Obama will have a real struggle to bring him to the table. On the Palestinian side, there are only signs of disarray, despair and disunity, with no clear, strong, pragmatic leader to unite their people. But if we don't do it, the pain will go on, the violence will go on and the conflict will continue to serve as a means to polarise the world community, to inflame passions and encourage extremists to further war and bloodshed. Other than a new push for peace, what alternative is there?

One thing we can all do is refuse to give in to hysteria and refuse to shout loudly for the punishment of one side or the other. We are not there. We are safe in our homes. Taking sides, while emotionally satisfying in the short run, will not help any more. We have to aim for something else - the reconciliation of the two peoples. If we can't do it from this distance, how can we expect them to?

And if we don't, we could find ourselves bearing witness to an even greater catastrophe, one which will devastate both communities. Its unthinkable. Ask yourself: do you really want that?