When I was twelve or thirteen I would lay on my bed and try to silence the voice in my head. I tried to crush it with gritted teeth. I tried to ignore it — maybe I could freeze it out? Sometimes, I tried to do nothing at all. On occasion, a space of quiet and tranquility would open up, for a moment, perhaps two. I savoured these moments of peace, then:
‘Wow, I’m doing it’ or ‘Finally, quiet’.
The bastard voice was back.
Every time I recognised a moment of freedom, the realisation triggered the return of the commentary and destroyed the thing I was trying to appreciate. Around the same time, when reading, I would get an off-putting feeling that a voice in my head was reading the book to me aloud, rather than my mind comprehending the meaning of the text without vocalisation. Often, I was so distracted that I put the book aside for five minutes to try to reset my brain, so that I could resume reading. Sometimes it would take three or four rounds of reading and stopping before I could reenter the state of silent information flow.
The recognition that there is a voice in your head, followed by a realisation that the voice and the thoughts themselves are separate from ‘you’ as the observer of your thoughts is a foundational insight in many contemplative traditions. Lacking a frame of reference, I didn’t realise at the time that in my own childish way I had reinvented meditation. While I’d recognised there was something interesting to be learned here, it wasn’t until later that I connected these first mental investigations to a lineage of techniques aimed at exploring the quality of attention and the mechanics of the mind.
My first taste of formal meditation practice, beyond some instructional books, came in my late teens/early twenties, via my friend Seb who was practising in the Samatha Buddhist tradition. We’d sit on the carpeted floor of his then-girlfriend’s family home on the outskirts of Oxford, light washing in through the bay windows that looked over the garden to the fields beyond. We’d talk, meditate, listen to music or just sit. At thirty-five I am a very different person from that overly self-confident (and self-conscious) teen and yet a lot of my core interests remain unchanged. The reason I visited Oxford every few weeks was to photograph Seb and his friends’s bands and to catch up with friends studying at the University. Shooting the Oxford music scene was a formative part of my growth as a photographer and trained me to work quickly in shitty light, which is a skill I still draw on today. Similarly the music that Seb introduced me to around that time — post rock by Godspeed You Black Emperor and Silver Mt Zion, electronica by Aphex Twin, or ambient and contemporary classical by Brian Eno and Steve Reich — opened up a world of music beyond the indie and hip hop that I was listening to at the time.
At the time my primary reservation to deepening my meditation practice was that it would cause me to lose my ‘edge’ (whatever that was). I felt a pull between a desire to investigate how my brain processed information and constructed my subjective reality and a fear of losing my ‘self’. It wasn’t a fear that I would turn into a soft-hearted vegetarian yoga practitioner subsisting on lentils and kale (👀); but that it would change my personality fundamentally, rounding off the sharp corners of my thinking, ambition and character, leaving a relativistic beige sponge in its place. I knew little about meditation at the time, yet I felt that it was a catalyst for transformation. Looking back, I can see that I was right to be wary, as I changed to a degree that I couldn’t have imagined at the time. I found the meaning and contentment that I was looking for in my twenties, but not in the places or form that I was searching for them at the time. In fact, I’m not sure if my teenage self would view my life and personality fondly; despite them fulfilling the goals, if not the destination I was seeking at the time.
This split between the values of an aspirant and the final values of the person they want to become is one of life‘s central contradictions and one explored in the excellent book Aspiration by Agnes Callard. Given that personal transformation isn’t instant — you are a parent in name only at the birth of your first child, but you become a parent in the process of raising that child — the process of aspiration is fraught due to the gap between the values you hold and those of the person you want to become. You desire change, but don’t realise that as you change, so too do your values, often steering you in a very different direction from the one you set out in. Someone can be content, happy even, to discuss house prices at a dinner party, swatting the careening heads of their precocious children away from the sharp corners of the table, while the nauseous ghost of their teenage self watches in horror from the beyond.
While I’ve seen this process happen in the lives of myself and others, I remain unable to detect it in the present or extrapolate my current state into the future. Which begs some questions:
Why have I changed so much, but my interests have remained so similar?
Where I am going and who I will become?
Would present me like future me?
Will future me even care?
“Three hundred years from now where will you be and where shall I be?” —Thich Nhat Hanh
A brilliant doc about the debut feature the filmmaker shot on the streets of Singapore in her youth, only for the footage to disappear without a trace. It weaves what appear to be cuts from the lost film with contemporary interviews into a collage of sound, light and colour that is by turns trippy and bittersweet.
Malcolm & Marie
Two stand out performances, a killer script and black and white cinematography to die for combine in this masterclass on how and why couples argue, and the destruction that it wreaks when it spirals out of control. The ebb and flow of tension and shifting power is handled with skill and precision.
Integrated Creativity by Ellie Tsatsou
The new podcast by my friend and photographer Ellie Tsatsou on creative practice. The first episode explores Ellie’s journey into photography, from the pictures that inspired her in imported magazines during her childhood in Athens, to working for Nick Knight and Ryan McGinley, then striking out on her own.
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs by Chick Corea
I was very sad to hear that Chick died on Tuesday this week. I came to his music very recently but I have been enjoying his energetic and intricate jazz piano over the course of the last year. Many more knowledgeable people than me have been praising his pioneering playing on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and albums with his own band since his death.
Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
This is one of the formative albums mentioned above that paved my way out of an indie rock ghetto and into wilder and weirder pastures. Drones, driving strings, crashing guitars and more. Delicate, almost pretty at times, before ascending into euphoric chaos
New Sentences by Sam Anderson
Short essays in the NYT on anything and everything starting from one line from a book, song, television show or similar.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Happy Valentines One and all.
This image, a portrait of Seb’s band The Keyboard Choir, was shot during the above mentioned period and went on to become my first cover