Skip to content

Monthly Archives: June 2018

The Princess and the Pea

I’m back from a 10-day meditation retreat, at Vajrasana in sunny Suffolk. That might seem a bit of a doss, but it’s also an investment – I really want to improve my meditation practice, for my benefit and others’, and it’s ten times easier to learn on retreat than at home.  It’s like trying to light a match indoors versus trying to light it on the top of a windy hill.

Retreats are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Let me give you a short history of my failures on retreat. The first was in 2006, when I went to Optina, the famous Orthodox monastery where Dostoevsky stayed. It’s a beautiful place, full of kindly monks and pneumatic cats. I went there in Lent, rose at dawn to go to the first service, followed the black-cowled figures through the snow, prayed with them by candlelight as the icons’ faces shimmered in the gloom. It was so romantic. And then, very quickly, it was just really hard and boring. The food was terrible, the services were long and incomprehensible, plus the archimandrite kept trying to convert me to the Orthodox faith. So, after two days, I left.

In 2015, while struggling to be a Christian, I went to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight. I intended to go there to meditate and do some writing. I was disgusted to discover there was no wi-fi or 3G connection. The come-down from all the stimuli of city life was unbearable. I felt so bored, sad, dead even. It was meant to be a silent retreat, but the man in the room next to me Skyped his son one evening. I shouted through the wall at him to shut up. Initially I found the church services somewhat moving, although one of the monks sang flat. But after a couple of days I just found them really boring and alienating. I began to accept that I wasn’t a Christian, I was kidding myself. So, after three days, I left.

In 2016, I went on a Vipassana retreat. It was extremely hardcore – no talking, no phones, no reading or writing, no leaving the perimeter, no contact with the other sex. Just ten hours of meditation a day. I found that I became furious with the people around me – with my room-mate, who crashed around and disturbed my sleep (one night I broke the silence to call him a wanker); or with the person who meditated behind me, who had a dry mouth and was constantly swallowing. Still, I stuck it out and made some progress.

In 2017, I went on a Zen retreat in the hills of south India. I was shown my room, and immediately asked to change room, to get a better view. I then had a lovely room overlooking the central zen garden. I meditated in the dojo, hearing only the tweeting of the birds. I began to feel a sense of inner serenity. And then music started blaring from a nearby village – tinny Tamil pop on the tannoy. It played all weekend, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

I could not believe it. How were we meant to meditate with that racket? I started to wonder if it was an act of sonic aggression by the village, to disturb the hippy westerners in the retreat below. How dare they ruin our Zen paradise! Eventually I went to the centre’s administrator and broke the silence to ask him: ‘what’s the deal with the music?’ I expected to hear a story about a long, bitter feud with the village. But he just shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re opening a new church. They’re always playing music, sometimes all week’. No big deal apparently.

This year, I went on a London Buddhist Centre retreat in April, and there were no major annoyances – however, I fell for one of the women on the retreat. I spent much of the retreat looking out for her, smiling at her, talking to her, thinking about her. I really thought we had something going. Then I discovered on the last day she had a boyfriend, who she lived with. The whole thing had been a story I’d concocted in my head. Another wasted opportunity.

So, this month, I went on an all-male retreat instead. The first night, the oom-pah band began. My room-mate snored like a smothered hippo. Every night I was woken up two or three times, and felt knackered in the morning. I considered my options. I considered asphyxiating the room-mate. I considered leaving the retreat. Why stay under such inauspicious conditions?

And then I came to accept that the problem, at least partly, was me. I have a very spiky ego, with sharp likes and dislikes, and one of my strongest aversions is people disturbing my sleep. That’s why I live on my own, on a top-floor flat in a quiet neighbourhood. My old room-mates will testify to the fact I’d often come down, at 12.05, and say ‘hi would you mind just keeping it down?’ They all eventually left. I will often change seats on the train because a person near me is annoying me with loud talk. I am easily irritated.

Maybe this was what I had to work with – learning to accept niggles and annoyances as part of the path, rather than reasons to leave. So I stayed, and the snoring stopped annoying me after a day. Yes, sometimes I was tired, but I still made progress, and took advantage of this incredible opportunity to practice the dharma.

While on the retreat, I read Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are. She writes:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace. But the more you think that way, you more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside the room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door.

What she and other Buddhists try to teach is a method for ‘ventilating your prejudices’ – learning to open your heart to what you find annoying, unpleasant, difficult or painful, so that you let some fresh air into the stale room of the ego. You let other beings into the room, even when they disturb you. And when you feel joy, you share that too. Gradually, with practice, you discover a softness, an openness, a flexibility in your mind. You discover that’s your deeper nature – that spacious heart-mind – rather than the constant reality-TV drama of your ego-talk. The obstacles become the teachers, pointing you to your prejudices and aversions, helping you work with them. The snoring room-mate is actually a helpful teacher.

I realized I was like the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Princess and Pea. She can’t quite get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses she lies upon. There’s always something niggling her and ruining her serenity. In the fairy tale, the prince takes this ‘royal sensitivity’ as proof of the princess’ pedigree, and happily marries her. Good luck with that. Can you imagine how high maintenance she will be?

So you come face to face on retreat with your ego and its deep aversions and attachments. And that can be pretty disturbing. But you can’t kick down the walls of the ego, shake it off like a sticking plaster, or just bury your irritation. Your ego is always going to be there, and you actually need it to come with you on the journey. What we can do is not immediately believe the stories our ego comes up with, and instead see if we notice a pattern to our prejudices. We can begin to soften the thick walls of our ego, with calm and humorous loving-attention, so that eventually (hopefully!) they go from steel, to concrete, to cardboard, to paper, to thin air.

Kanye West and the five elements of creative genius

I went to see a publisher the other day, who said they had a project for me. The project turned out to be a series called ‘Great Philosophers’. Could I suggest any great living philosophers to write about, other than myself obviously? ‘How about a book about Kanye West?’ They laughed. Pause. ‘No, really. Make a series of little books about great cultural influencers. I’ll do one on Kanye West.’

They didn’t go for it, naturally. Apparently he’s writing his own philosophy book in any case. But it was a genuine impulse. This may sound weird coming from a white, middle-class philosophy-blogger, but West has been a creative inspiration for me over the last decade or so, more than anyone else our generation. I often listened to his music while writing books, because it got me going, made me believe I could complete the creative task I’d set myself, in an era where artists don’t get paid and we’re all over-saturated with media.

I’ve been into West since I first heard the explosive optimism of Touch The Sky in 2005. But I only really got into him in 2010, when I was writing my first book.

Back then, West was in a bad place – his mother had died, he’d split up with his girlfriend, he’d made an electronic break-up album which didn’t sell very well (it’s now considered a classic). Then he’d interrupted Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, and been labelled a jack-ass by president Obama. He was a global laughing-stock.

For a while he apparently thought about quitting music. But instead he relocated to Hawaii, block-booked a suite of recording studios,  then invited his favourite artists to come, stay, and make music – everyone from RZA and Q-Tip to Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Every day, they gathered for breakfast meetings, then played basketball, then in the afternoon hit the studio and stayed until the early hours. It was an extraordinary burst of creativity for West – he’d be at the studio all night, switching between different studios and songs, sleeping for a couple of hours in a chair, then starting again.

That led to My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy in November 2010, for many critics the greatest album of that decade.  He was so on fire, he and his collaborators were turning out classic tracks that West just gave away on the internet for free, every Friday – tracks like Chains Heavy, or Joy, or his remix of Justin Bieber’s Runaway Love – one of my favourite tracks of that year (yeah, that’s right, a Bieber remix was my favourite track of the year).

That was when I thought, shit, maybe Kanye’s right…maybe he is a genius!

Genius is an unfashionable term these days, in an era when scientific breakthroughs occur via big data analysis and teams of hundreds. But I think psychologists like Frederic Myers and William James were right when they argued certain individuals can rightly be called geniuses, because they possess certain capacities.

As I wrote about David Bowie, a creative genius needs five attributes. First, they need to be able to open up to their subconscious, which means being able to switch off their critical fire-wall and dive in to uncensored imagination (often this goes hand in hand with mental instability, with a tendency to bipolar or schizoid personality disorder, as it did with Bowie and West).

Second, just as important, they need a conscious power of discrimination, to sort the gold from the dross that pours out of the subconscious. Third, they need to be able to collaborate with other artists, get their ego out of the way, and bring out the best in others. Fourth, they need incredible self-belief to follow their vision and do something new, when the market wants them to repeat the last trick over and over (think Dylan leaving his folk social criticism to go electric).

Finally, and most importantly, they need to have that particular daemonic power in their subconscious, that livewire connection to the Main Source, and to maintain a relationship to that daemon without being fried by it. That’s very rare – a lot of creative geniuses, like Amy Winehouse, get fried by the Main Source before they’re able to create much.

Kanye and the angel / daemon of creative inspiration, from the movie for Runaway

West, like Bowie, has this proximity to the Main Source, the fiery creative daemon within him. The creativity just pours out of him – he’ll create a killer hook, and then change direction mid-song, just because. On the first song of Yeezus, the abrasively electronic On Sight, he declares ‘How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.’ And the song turns on a dime into this soaring gospel choir-song. The choir sings ‘He’ll give you what you need, it may not be what you want’… and then it’s back to the in-your-face electronics. It’s like Prince – just a ridiculous bounty of creative talent, an excess of it, a table groaning with dishes. Other artists will take a five-second clip of one of his songs and turn it into a hit – like Sigma taking the break from Bound and turning it into their hit, Nobody to Love.

Quite often, West’s songs seem like they’re winding up, and then suddenly they swell back even harder, like a thunderstorm. It’s nature’s bounty, the excess of it. It’s Shakespeare putting in a scene with a gravedigger because why the fuck not.

At the end of Devil In A New Dress from MBTDF – my favourite song of his – the song starts to wind down after three minutes, and you think that’s the natural end, then a guitar starts to wail, the storm starts to build, then Rick Ross comes in with an amazing last verse. It’s a revelling in natural power, a dancing in the storm.

This is the last three minutes of Devil in a New Dress (the video is dumb):


With that creative power, that ‘dragon energy’, comes arrogance, ego-inflation and mania. The artist as prophet, the artist as superman, the artist as god. Both West and David Bowie flirted with the ideas of Aleister Crowley, the black magician of the early 20th century, who declared there would be a new era of superhumans who would do what they wanted while the pathetic masses worshipped them. This is the theme of Power, the big hit on MBTDF, the video for which shows West wearing a massive Crowley necklace at the centre of a pagan mass. Both West and Bowie have also flirted with fascism (or, at least, with Donald Trump in West’s case). And both have often fallen for their own myth and pretty much gone crazy.

‘I am a God’ – Crowley, Bowie and West


But he somehow hasn’t destroyed himself, yet, partly through a capacity to face his shadow and make art from it. He rapped in Touch the Sky: ‘I try to right my wrongs but it’s funny the same wrongs helped me write this song’. That’s what makes MBTDF so amazing – the ability to hold steady and transmute all the darkness into one of the great albums, as Bowie did on Station-to-Station.

West wasn’t just confronting his own shadow, he was confronting the shadow of being a black male superstar. You get to the top by being a well-behaved performer, like Obama. You do not interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV awards. You do not expose all your sexual peccadillos, your porn addiction, your kink for white girls. You do not support Donald Trump. You hide that darkness, create a polite persona and a monster in the shadows, as Michael Jackson did, or OJ Simpson, or Tiger Woods, or Bill Cosby. West confronted that monster and made art out of it. He put a painting of him fucking a white girl on the cover (or a white…angel?). ‘Let’s have a toast to the douchebags’, he sings on Runaway. That self-exposure takes guts. Who else doesn’t just admit he’s bipolar, but celebrates it?

Celebrating the shadow – the covers for MBTDF (left) and Ye (right)

And he has an ability to get on his knees before God, as Bowie did in the dark heart of Station-to-Station. He gets really close to the edge of mania and darkness and self-destruction, and he surrenders to God. There’s a powerful bipolarity in African-American music, between God and the ego / flesh / Devil. The church and the juke joint. White music sometimes lacks that energy because white middle-class hipsters don’t believe in God or the Devil anymore, so the stakes are lower. West taps into that bipolarity, consciously. Take ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ from Life of Pablo – it’s a beautiful gospel track which begins with a preacher singing ‘You’re the only power’ and Kanye wailing ‘I just wanna be liberated’ and then goes into a rap about a girl bleaching her asshole. The last line of his excellent new album with Kid Cudi has him singing ‘Lord shine your light on me, save me please’, like Bowie singing ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’ on Station-to-Station.

Then there are the other superpowers of the creative genius. The ability to discriminate, sort the gold from the shit, to be a perfectionist and not stop until it’s right – it reminds me of the story Jimmy Iovine tells of producing Born to Run for Springsteen, when Springsteen made him work on one snare drum sound for days.

And there’s the ability to collaborate. Like Bowie, Kanye West is amazing at finding collaborators and getting ego out of the way to bring the best out of them and him. That’s how he made MBTDF – gather the people he most admires, and crowd-source it. When he was stumped for the lyrics for Power, he went round the room asking everyone what power meant to them. So when he raps ‘no one man should have all this power’ – that song was, ironically, a group effort. This is what Brian Eno calls ‘scenius’ – not the solitary genius, but the ability to network and collaborate. He lifts artists to another level with his intensity – just like Bowie and Eno could.

Many of the greatest moments in his music feature other artists leading – Nicki Minaj’s rap on Monster, Chance the Rapper at the end of Ultralight Beam, Lupe Fiasco’s rap on Touch the Sky, 070’s amazing last verse on new song Ghost Town, or Kid Cudi’s amazing performance on new song Reborn. That’s generous and ego-effacing, to let others take centre stage. Check out how much he enjoys the other artists’ performance in this killer live performance of UltraLight Beam on SNL:



And, of course, he’s also a douchebag, a loud-mouth, a narcissist, a fool, a personification of the vain male ego. But for a decade or so, now, he’s been chanelling the Main Source of creative energy, and that is exhausting and destructive – it almost killed Bob Dylan, it almost killed Bowie, it has almost killed West. The masses look to them as prophets but as Plato said of poets, they don’t really know what’s coming through them – it’s not wisdom, it’s sheer creative power. Don’t expect ethical or political wisdom from them.

Then the electricity shifts and finds someone else in the network to fry, and they’re out there in the cold for a while, everyone saying they’ve lost it, Dylan’s gone evangelical, Bowie’s making Tin Machine, Paul McCartney’s gone vegan, West’s gone alt-right. He’s a douchebag. You feel let down by his latest doucherie? He’s always been a douchebag. But listen to the new album Kids See Ghosts. Or listen to this Spotify playlist I made of some of his finest moments. Here comes the rain again.