Community Practice Spirituality Therapy Urban

Pharaoh Sanders

Lulu discovered this event at the Lisson Gallery and we both hastened there. Playback of a forthcoming reissue of Pharaoh Sanders’ eponymous LP, once on the hip and tiny India Navigation label, now set to become more widely-known on the hip and substantial Luaka Bop.

Luaka Bop have done some amazing reissues over the years. They’ve been as reliable as Strut. A purist, I don’t even mind their repackaging. I have a particular soft spot for their World Psychedelic Series, and should probably be all over this sister series.

I’m not entirely convinced by “the artist” Devon Turnbull’s spiel here (see PR sheet below) but I like the cut of his jib (magical hippie upbringing). He’s also made this stereo himself which shows some serious technical ability. Respect.

Ultimately though, getting to listen to a great, rare, spiritual jazz LP for free on an excellent sound system, I mean, what’s there to complain about? I feel like I ought to reach out to him with my “The “S” Word” book…

At the start we were spoken to a woman from Luaka Bop who explained that Pharaoh Sanders was aware of the playback project before he died and took a keen interest in it. That lent proceedings a nice devotional air.

It’s a hipster jam.

That’s the Devon feller in the peaked cap.

Harvest Time. Such a wonderful piece. Never heard it before so I was in for a treat. It has a definite No Wave feel. Shades of influence from the young bucks of the day, James Blood Ulmer and The Music Revelation Ensemble no doubt. The guitar by Tisziji Muñoz, liquid, is prominent and the backing was been described by the reissue label as having the feel of rock group (though on close inspection they all seem to be jazz heavyweights…)

Nice press shot of the man. I’m hoping I will get the CD given to me at Christmas. Thanks to Lulu for bringing me along.

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My son Sam’s biology teacher gave him some Nigella seeds. I sowed them in October 2022 over where I had previously grown Buckwheat. The Buckwheat, which is leguminous and puts nitrogen back into the soil, was with a view to restoring the container to use. Before the Buckwheat I had grown Broad Beans, itself also leguminous.

Over the past three years I haven’t dug up any containers or pots. This has been to see whether the no dig principles work in this context. I have never pulled old plants out by the roots (unless they have been Beetroot or Carrots!), only cut them off at the base of the stem, and have just dressed over the previous patch with some compost.

Over the course of a season the soil level subsides. This is partly owing to compaction through gravity but is also because the plants’ growth is the soil’s output of matter, of carbon. So it does make some room for compost to be layered on top. So far this has worked fine for me.

In January 2023 I could see some slight signs of growth, but really I thought these were weeds, or possibly the Buckwheat growing back. I’m not expert enough to identify plants at this size.

These were taken in March and April. I was excited about the growth, but was still pretty sure that this was a weed or the Buckwheat growing back (itself sometimes viewed as a weed!).

By mid May the growth was looking luscious and I was beginning to be hopeful that I’d had some success with the Nigella seeds.

Then it became clear from their alien bulbous heads and magnificent flowers that this was Nigella and that the experiment had worked.

These two images below taken on my phone through a magnifying glass I got for my birthday. There’s a pretty chromatic aberration and a lovely background blur from the shallow focus. The architecture of these flowers is just exquisite.

In the first week of June things really took off. There is some kind of ecstacy at this time of year. Indeed in the period leading up to the summer solstice on June 21st one’s garden is truly magnificent. Thereafter the promise of the summer feels like it is ebbing away quite dramatically.

Before I gardened I definitely got the feeling of summer as being a longer phenomenon. It’s interesting how the practice connects you to the seasons. In London it might still be hot, giving the sense of a perpetuating season, but the reality is different.

I’m still planting new seeds though now directly outdoors: Rudbeckia, Hyssop, Buckwheat, Lady Di Beans, Courgette, Lettuce, Leeks. But this maybe with a view to hopefully squeezing a crop in before the end of the year, and expecting less growth.

This was taken on the 8th June – not a great shot but shows the full flowering.

And this on 21st June at the solstice. As you can see all the petals have fallen away.

With the flowers giving up the ghost I got a bit more relaxed about the cats wanting to wander in the bed. Here’s the Grey Cat enjoying herself. I love her expression in the second photo: “I am not here. You can not see me!”

At the start of July I cut the flowers and hung them to dry in my study window. The day before yesterday I noticed that the seeds had started to drop from the heads onto the window-ledge.

This morning I put the whole bouquet in a large, clear, plastic bin bag and shook it gently. Then I decanted the seeds into a jam jar.

Nigella Sativa, to give it its fancy name, is an ornamental flower but its seed is also used a spice (sometimes called Black Caraway or Black Cumin) and is also implemented in traditional medicine systems, Unani and Tibb, Ayurveda and Siddha. In this sense it’s also a crop. I will probably try eating some, maybe as a spice on some of carrots, and then sow the rest in the autumn.

With thanks to Julie.

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Wormy Truth of Gardens

Wormy Truth of Gardens drawing for us by Ben Watson.

At Luke Davis’ poetry book launch last June I met the writer/musician/activist Ben Watson. He is chiefly famous for his artist-endorsed writings on Frank Zappa. Ben has been a friend of Luke’s for a long time. I knew beforehand that Luke and his fellow poet Jim Clarke had participated in Ben’s improvised music events on Friday at lunchtime at the Betsey Trotwood on the Farringdon Road.

AMMAS March 31st at The Betsey Trotwood.

Ben is a force of nature. He’s one of those rare people you encounter in life who is truly an individual. Very friendly, he’s not shy of taking a controversial position. I really enjoy his company even though I don’t feel I bring a tremendous amount to the table having given up being “an expert” on music, being too uptight to drink, and preferring at the times I’ve been along to the Betsey Trotwood to sit in the audience and enjoy the experience rather than participate. They make a tremendous sound at the BT and the collectivity of the action is truly thrilling.

As far as I’m concerned the best thing about improvised music is that it entirely eliminates the need for technical abilities. To talk about famous improvisers is to some extent miss the point. When you do so you are entering the domain of the appreciation of musical virtuosity. That’s ok but maybe it’s not its real value? To some extent that explains the DIY punk edge to AMMAS, Watson’s improvising group.

Since childhood, out of total incompetence, I’ve improvised on a range of instruments: hours tiny at the piano at my grandparents’ house, for many years alone in rooms doing so when I should have been practicing violin (or even in the middle of the second orchestra’s performances at school when I was entirely lost from the score), and on the flute. Then later, more recently, on electronic keyboards, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums. All the while making a horrible racket mainly for my own appreciation. And that’s the way it will stay with me, as a private negotiation. Right now I’m quietly mucking around with a recorder. That seemed like a sufficiently disparaged instrument to want to play. Though, as I now appreciate, there’s a lot to be said for it as an activity you can practice in a group.

Ben is in fact a pretty serious musician, with I believe, some degree of actual musical talent. If you’re curious check out this recent piano improvisation which has garnered well-deserved recognition.

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May Flowers

All together now.
Practice Spirituality Therapy

The I Ching

After I finished writing Retreat I kept reading a lot of books.

I followed leads that led me through marketing (the ideas I explored in TPM) and by reading I consolidated my thoughts about music (covered in The “S” Word). These days, researching my next book, I’m looking at literature that might be obvious from the content posted here at Sick Veg. Nuff said.

Some texts, however, I’ve continually found myself being referred back to. One comes across them again and again. No doubt about it, the world of written thought has a definite pyramidic structure. And at the top are texts (poems, prayers, mantras, sutras, tracts, lyrics, books) that have a few things in common. Most often they are a bit weird. Frequently they are difficult. But sometimes extreme concision can be a factor too.

The reason for their weirdness, difficulty and (in those cases usually blessed) concision is that they exist at the furthest perimeters of the usefulness of language. They are like the peculiar, tiny plants that survive in inhospitable deserts and tundra. With varying degrees of success they try to make manifest concepts that have a shape we’re not equipped to visualise. [Obligatory quantum new age observation: The best example of this dilemma in maths would be the four-dimensional cube.]

It would be theoretically possible to create large objects out of this luminous, other-worldly material but the larger they get, the structurally weaker and the less internal consistency they have. The Bible, for instance, is a huge hodge-podge of separate smaller individual attempts – where maybe a handful really stand out and are necessary: Genesis, The Book of Job (strictly for fun…), Revelations, and the Gospel of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount etc).

To return to the earlier metaphor of plants. Traversing this inhospitable environment at the outer edges of language, how would you feel if you came across, not some puny weed, but a massive ancient tree, an oak for instance? The I Ching is like that.

A diagram of I Ching hexagrams sent to the mathematician Leibniz.

Dating from 1000–750 BC it’s impossibly old but some of its central concepts are thrillingly contemporary. Most obviously it gives us the picture of a huge conceptual architecture built entirely from the humblest binary material (Yin = 0, Yang = 1). That’s like the digital universe in case you missed the obvious comparison. Do try and keep up… There’s interminable scholarship ancient and modern about the I Ching, however to get the epicentre of what it’s about it’s useful to look at the first two hexagrams.

Ch’ien – The Creative

This is the first hexagram Ch’ien, “The Creative”. It is a stack of six yang lines. It is the image of heaven. It represents dynamic force.

K’un – The Receptive.

And this is the second hexagram K’un, “The Receptive”. It is a stack of six yin lines. It is the image of earth. It represents yielding.

Everything that the I Ching illustrates happens within a framework defined by these two complimentary principles. It establishes existence as we know it happening entirely on an axis of dematerialisation and materialisation. Its implicit central argument is that everything makes sense in these terms.

The book is an exploration of 64 key situations which come about in the interaction of these two fundamental states. But the I Ching doesn’t just seek to articulate what hexagram characterises the fleeting moment, it offers profound advice as how best to exist in each of those conditions so as to embody the alignment that the Taoists called “Li”, the Buddhists “Dharma”, and the Hindus “Rta”. As agony aunt it is sine qua non.

On a superficial and totally mundane level, whatever result you get with it as a divination tool, if you can see some relationship of its counsel to your situation, then what it tells you specific to that situation would be sensible. So for instance its perennial observation: “Perseverance furthers”. In what context can that ever be construed as bad advice? Just keep going. In both our brightest and darkest hours those might be the only words we need to hear.

Sui – Following

I wrote quite objectively about the I Ching in Retreat. However, I find more and more that when I consult it it seems to nail both my circumstances and helps to specify the correct attitude to have towards them.

For instance, I asked the I Ching whether it was wise to write this post at Sick Veg about it and it gave me hexagram 17 Sui, “Following”. The Judgement read, “In order to obtain a following one must learn how to adapt oneself.” It’s like a manual for social media innit! So how does one adapt oneself? It says “…he must first learn to serve…” From which I inferred that I mustn’t forget my duty to you dear reader. And what is my duty? “If he has to obtain a following by force or cunning, by conspiracy or by creating factions, he invariably arouses resistance, which obstructs willing adherence.” From which I inferred that in this situation I should tell my small audience the truth, that I am fascinated by and use the I Ching.

This is a picture of my little I Ching kit which I have enjoyed for a number of years now. The matchbox we found in Senegal in the nineties. The coins are from Japan. The dice reminds me of happy times playing Dungeons Dragons. The ba qian method specifies an equal probability of getting either a Yin or Yang (you can do this by tossing a coin) and then (using an eight-sided dice) you calculate the probability of the moving lines. According to statisticians this reproduces the probabilities of the previously most common traditional method, the yarrow stalks.

The moving lines, or “the lines” are an extra layer of interpretations which add on top of each of the individual yin or yang in the hexagram. So for instance you could have as many as six extra notes added on top of the basic hexagram. I’m always relieved when I get no extra lines because I like things simple. However, in themselves the lines are conceptually interesting. They’re like a weather forecast which specifies of the wind “south-westerly becoming southerly” because each hexagram is a snapshot of a dynamic situation.

I would imagine if you could see the hexagram to which the lines specified the one you had thrown was changing into, then this added interpretation might make sense. If you get me…

Ok, I’ve never looked into this before, but let’s try that! When I threw Sui – “Following” I had a change specified in the fifth line. When I looked that up in the Sui lines, of my question it said: “Every man must have something he follows – something that serves him as a lodestar. He who follows the beautiful and the good may feel himself strengthened by this saying.” I took this to refer to my interest in the I Ching. And this was added like a notation to my reading.

Chên – The Arousing

If we look up the hexagram that Sui was turning into it is 51: Chên / The Arousing. Here the judgement specifies: “The shock that comes from the manifestation of God within the depths of the earth makes man afraid, but fear of God is good, for joy and merriment can follow it.” And yeah I can see that making sense as a transition…

It was this Taoist appreciation of the dynamic cosmos that so fascinated Werner Heisenberg when he invited new age physics guru Fritjof Capra to present him his working notes for the enchanting The Tao of Physics (1975). Capra said of Heisenberg:

…he had been unaware of the dynamic aspect of the Eastern world view and was intrigued when I showed him with numerous examples from my manuscript that the principal Sanskrit terms used in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy-brahman, rta, lila, karma, samsara, etc.-had dynamic connotations.

These days there are I Ching apps you can download but there’s something very wrong about them. To go back to this fundamental distinction between the first and second hexagrams – the I Ching is about life on this material plane. And in case you hadn’t realised it, in an app, or even browsing a website like this you are partially dematerialised, tethered to a higher plane. Notwithstanding this, and my love for the I Ching, I was still very amused to read this review below from Casey on the App store complaining about the poor divinatory result he got from one app. Call technical support!

Throughout my reading of books on the counterculture I’m persistently coming across descriptions of people consulting the I Ching. Most recently in Stewart Brand’s new biography. I am always delighted by the faith people put in it. Didn’t Mark Rylance turn down Spielberg on its instruction? It didn’t seem to do his career any harm… And in actual fact the I Ching is usually preoccupied with very prosaic things such as careers.

Certainly, I don’t tend to ask it terribly serious questions. These days I find it works best, not if I ask it whether or not to do something, but what my attitude should be towards certain matters. Though I did once ask it whether I should delete my LinkedIn account and was delighted when it told me to do so. OBVIOUSLY that was the right thing to do.

A few months ago when I asked it about something in particular (before proceeding to do completely the opposite) – I regretted not heeding its advice…

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Over the past few years I have frequently agonised over what to do with snails in my tiny garden. I’ve gone as far as airlifting them to local parks.

It’s been a tremendous weight off my conscience to realise that I don’t have to tolerate them. Consequently when I discover snails, like this one in a nightly sortie, I throw them away.

I’m happy to welcome cats, birds, flies, caterpillars, wasps, weeds, and all manner of bugs. But not snails, they can fuck off.

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Jung’s Cosmic Tree

Jung is underrated as an artist. There are some fabulous illustrations in The Red Book; indeed there could be less text… There’s an interesting story of how, after his own “breakthrough” experience one of Jung’s female followers had been keenly encouraging his art. Jung heeded this for a while before, presumably judging his pictures wanting, he dismissed the attention as sycophancy and summarily devoted his energy to Analytic Psychology.

These images, the bottom four certainly from The Red Book, all depict the Cosmic Tree. In the catalogue of The Botanical Mind exhibition the curators comment of his interest in it: “The tree was a recurring motif, pictured as both supporting and connecting every aspect of the cosmos. Planted in the earth its roots reach down through the terrestrial realm toward darkness and the shadow realm, whilst its branches stretch up through the celestial, toward the star-filled heavens.”

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Neurodiversity in G-Block

My uncle is closely involved with the charity Being Alongside. I’ve been to a few of their conferences primarily to show support for him, but they are always interesting. Being Alongside, a Christian organisation, approach mental illness as a condition to be aided by compassionate intervention. Unlike the generation of countercultural thinkers, they don’t concern themselves with the connection between the spiritualised state and psychological problems. The countercultural position is that mental health problems manifest in equivalence to the difference between consonance and dissonance in music. In normal states of mind the volume is low, even imperceptible. At higher volumes spiritual states of mind can be equated to consonance and mental illness to dissonance.

Jonathan Aitken looking at us slightly askance.

This latest talk featured The Reverend Jonathan Aitken (prison chaplain) and Neil Fraser (Custody Manager) of HMP Pentonville. Aitken is a celebrated poster-boy for Christianity. An MP in John Major’s government he suffered disgrace in a law suit against The Guardian in which he committed perjury, and ended up spending seven months at Her Majesty’s pleasure. He was made bankrupt and was divorced to boot. His downfall and subsequent conversion to Christianity was greeted in some quarters with cynicism, but the church loves a repentant sinner, and, I dunno, he seems like a good egg.

Aitken talked about his experiences of being (briefly) the most vilified individual in the UK and about how he carved himself a niche at Belmarsh writing and reading letters for his fellow inmates. An opening act he was keen to set up his colleague at Pentonville Neil Fraser who has been instrumental in the initiative to set up and run an ADHD and Autism “Neurodiversity wing” in G-block.

Neil Fraser discussing life in G block.

This continuum between the prison and clinic is interesting for a number of reasons. One knows from reading Foucault’s “Madness and Civilisation” that all manner of people were confined in the original asylums with genuinely mentally ill people being in the minority:

“From the creation of the Hôpital Général, from the opening, in Germany and in England, of the first houses of correction, and until the end of the eighteenth century, the age of reason confined. It confined the debauched, spendthrift fathers, prodigal sons, blasphemers, men who ‘see to undo themselves,’ libertines… One-tenth of all the arrests made in Paris for the Hôpital Général concern ‘the insane,’ ‘demented’ men, individuals of ‘wandering mind,’ and ‘persons who have become completely mad.’ Between these and the others, no sign of a differentiation.”

Fraser, who is described by Aitken as a very tough correctional officer, could perhaps be viewed in the same light as the earliest asylum doctors who, as Foucault elaborates, worked their miraculous therapy by policing ethical behaviour amongst their charges:

“In the time of Pinel and Tuke, this power had nothing extraordinary about it; it was explained and demonstrated in the efficacity, simply of moral behaviour…

I pointed out to Fraser that it was an extremely stressful position they had found themselves in and asked him whether they had received any therapeutic training or support. To my surprise he opened up and explained very movingly that, starved of funds, he and his colleagues have received practically no help at all. The profession is apparently dogged with staff barely coping with the pressure.

The results on the intervention in the Neurodiversity wing have been really startling. Simple measures like knocking on cell doors and waiting a minute outside (by which approach prisoners on the spectrum are not overwhelmed by an incoming herd of officers) or the use of a support dog called Dobby (the weekly appearance of whom is a highlight) have contributed to a radically different atmosphere. Prisoners interviewed in an internally-circulated video which has apparently gone viral in the service finds them sincerely expressing gratitude. Outcomes on release seem set to be more positive.