51. Care For The Soul

30753242701_3bac2d80a6_kThere is a moment in Shozan Haubner’s Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk which has stayed with me ever since I read it sometime this year. Haubner is living in the Mount Baldy Monastery in Los Angeles, presided over by the head abbot Kyozan Joshu Sasaki. One day, Haubner writes of himself distractedly, half-heartedly playing his part in a dress-rehearsal for the Jodo-e ceremony in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment which is to take place the following day. Pootling through the proceedings, the following incident occurs: Continue reading “51. Care For The Soul”

50. Homeless

homeless“Emaweni webaba, silale maweni, webaba silale maweni” is a refrain intoned over and over again by Ladysmith Black Mambazo at the beginning of their collaboration with Paul Simon on their song Homeless.

A rough translation of this is: “Hey Mister! We sleep on the cliffs.”

Our lives, emotionally, physically, spiritually, are inherently perilous. But even so, we need to find a way to build abodes of safety and succour for ourselves, sanctuaries and refuges of peace so that we can also rest, sleep, whilst seeing through our perilous human lives. Continue reading “50. Homeless”

49. A Final Stab At Mu

muLife feels rich and exciting when it feels generative. This is why love stories, like those that work on First Dates, have such an incredible propulsion to them. Two people, travelling along their own trajectories, meet. And in this meeting, their life-propulsion becomes exponential, gathering force cumulatively.

This exponential generativity may involve all sorts of scenarios: fucking and house-buying and dancing all night at All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals. It may involve producing a third, a wholly separate and new life form. But before and after all this generativity, there will be times when nothing much happens, when a kind of life-denying entropy reigns, when who we are, and what we’re about feels stuck in a rut, the ruts often consisting of safety grooves from which we’re unable to shift. Continue reading “49. A Final Stab At Mu”

48. Pilgrimage

31429515160_a74b02004a_bAs children, when we feel troubled or inadequate, we turn to an adult, a Wizard, Dad or Mum, in the hope that they might guide, console, or make us whole again. As adults, we continue to look to Wizards such as gurus, therapists, life-coaches, our modern-day Zhaozhous, our parental stand-ins to assist us with a similar kind of emotional alchemy. Frustration, blockage, deprivation within this process can also be an important developmental shift too though. If we’re resilient enough to take it and grow. If not, we call this trauma.   Continue reading “48. Pilgrimage”

46. The Journey

It31766399676_812af4acf2_k started with a pilgrimage: a man and his dog making their way to towards Kuan yin yuan in the Chao province of Northern China where the guru, the roshi, the Big Daddy Zhaozhou was waiting in that briefest of two-line narratives to spring his Mu on them, on us.

For the pleasures of parallels, let’s end on a pilgrimage: not to China, but Chingford, and a pilgrimage made by Max and I on the 1st of October, 2016, just over a year after beginning our Mu explorations. Continue reading “46. The Journey”

45. Freedom?

31438798520_baee12f7d0_bIf you’ve seen the film 127 Hours or read the book, as I did a few nights back, you will know by now, that after three days drinking his own urine, feeling it erode the roof of his mouth, his trapped arm beginning to decay, attempting now and again to chip away at the huge boulder pinning him down, Aron ultimately resigns himself to his fate. He is going to die. But even then, the frustration of his situation once more triggers a visceral, animal-like fits of pique, the sort of thing you would expect from a dog or a fox with its leg caught in a bear-trap: Continue reading “45. Freedom?”

44. How Drives Shape Us

31774173716_40cc37aecf_kIn 1938, Director of the newly establish Harvard Psychological Clinic, a man named Henry A. Murray, along with a team of psychologists and lay psychoanalysts, including his lover Christiana Morgan, created a series of pictorial koans, 20 in total, designed to unearth the “dominant drives, emotions, sentiments, complexes and conflicts of a personality”. In our personality-saturated culture, this spec probably sounds old-hat, but it was pioneering stuff at the time. And these pioneers needed a new title to describe to describe themselves. They called themselves personologists. Continue reading “44. How Drives Shape Us”

40. Not Really Going Anywhere

31779925416_f2a5b49503_kOne outcome of this contravention of our desires is an experience we might situate on the spectrum of this thing we now call “depression”, spanning as it does from despondency and discouragement, gloominess and sadness, all the way through to despair and abject misery.

When I think of depression, I keep on coming back to Ned in that Gary Larson cartoon, which I first saw on a birthday card (?) bought for me by my mother in my early 20s, when at University I first experienced what felt like a crippling affliction, an affliction I soon learnt to call “depression” and tried for many years to medicate against it with pills and therapy. Continue reading “40. Not Really Going Anywhere”

39. Mu: The Present That Keeps On Not Giving

31817507765_1590964ecc_kSay you’ve asked someone for a present. Let’s also say that the person you’ve requested the present from has the means to give you that present. Maybe a BMX bicycle. You ask, then you wait, and whilst you wait, you dream, you look forward to the day in which you’re going to receive your present.

And finally that day arrives, and with it the masque of complicity that all parents and children, all lovers play, where the recipient now pretends to be oblivious of their initial request, obscuring for the duration of the pleasurable unwrapping, and perhaps beyond that, an acknowledgement that the bicycle-shaped object in front of them is in fact a realisation of their explicitly stated cravings and desires. Continue reading “39. Mu: The Present That Keeps On Not Giving”

38. Is What Is

31702301552_2af9b8f014_kA couple on First Dates. She has tattoos, he doesn’t. One of her tattoos reads: It Is What It Is.

Their dates is not going well. At one point he mocks the tattoo, including the tautophrase in a stonewallish reply to one of her questions. Both the tattoo and the phrase itself is the perfect piece of armour for dating, a “verbal shrugging off” as William Safire notes in his New York Times Language column, “an example of the use of repetition not for emphasis, but for evasion.” Other examples of this: facts are facts, let’s call a spade a spade, que sera sera, and the classic fob off cum acceptance mantra “what’s done is done”. Continue reading “38. Is What Is”

37. The Leash of Mu

31020165984_10190f71e7_zZhaozhou and Michele’s job, but maybe this is the case for all the PG Tips,  is to lead the disciple (me) on the leash of the koan, a loose-enough leash, so that he feels he got there on his own steam, to a special kind of self-cure, a meta-position, in which we might stand to one side of our own ignorance, attachment and aversion, seeing through the metal bars of these hindrances and so at the same time strengthening our motivation to find some kind of existential hacksaw or hydrofluoric concoction that might free us from our subjective constraints. Continue reading “37. The Leash of Mu”

33. Relational Mu

31011323364_1b92661680_bMu also rears its head again and again within our most committed relationships, where we’ve already won the “prize”, someone to love who also loves us, but still our obscure relational needs (often as obscure to us as to the other person) seem to point at some kind of existential deprivation which we struggle to communicate to the very person we’re most intimate with. Continue reading “33. Relational Mu”

32. First Dates

31013054874_683e3cfdf8_zIt all takes place in one room, let’s call it a restaurant, where men and women come each night and sit facing each other across a table so as to have, freely-associative, quasi interview-like conversations with each other whilst eating rich and calorific food.

Each of these individuals, we are told, has come to the television studio cum restaurant with a burning question, much like the pilgrim who makes his more ascetic way to Zhaozhou. Their question, a variant on “Does a dog have Buddha nature?”, in this case: “Am I lovable?” That is to say: “Will you, my interlocutor find me an adorable pup, or an unlovable cur”. In this restaurant, anything in between is called “the friends zone”, and people are not here to be placed in that unimpassioned region. Continue reading “32. First Dates”

30. Hulk Vs. Joshu

hulk-vs-joshuThere is nothing in Yoel Hoffman’s collection of Joshu teachings that gives us any indication of how Zhaozhou might have dealt either with his own spontaneous anger (of which there are numerous examples) or how he would have helped others to temper theirs.

If anything, Zhaozhou often acts as the catalyst, or perhaps as a shit-stirrer, in terms of provoking frustration and distemper in those who seek the equanimity and surety that they believe his sagacious teachings might give them – only to find that in their request for him to make them holy, all Zhaozhou has done is dump “a mountain of shit” on their clean, plain aspirations, challenging them to get to work. Continue reading “30. Hulk Vs. Joshu”

29. Monstrous Anger

“Once upon a time,” begins cujo-covera novel about a psychotically angry dog called Cujo, “a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.”

We expect the storyteller (Stephen King) to be referring here to Cujo, whose slavering muzzle and bared teeth we’ve just been looking at on the cover of the 1982, New American/Signet paperback edition, a book our 11 year-old self bought with his pocket money from the second-hand bookstore next to the video shop in the suburb of Benoni, South Africa. Continue reading “29. Monstrous Anger”

28. Wake Up Calls

31710239861_fa6c85a04f_kAnyone who has struggled with an Angry part of themselves, will be able to point to a time where they had a wake up call, where they recognised that in response to Mu, and the Angry Protector it invoked, something terrible happened which was seriously out of sync with one’s core values.

My wake up calls with regard to Max came in the form of two episodes. Let’s call the first: Chekhov’s Log and the second The Cower. Continue reading “28. Wake Up Calls”

27. Tony’s Hulk

31790360276_b31698d4be_bThis aspect of developmental trauma is never explored in the television series, which focuses more on frustration anger, perhaps befitting a country (America) which at the time was getting angrier by the decade.

Tony’s mud phobia also has its roots in unprocessed trauma, as did Freud’s first and only case study of a child’s phobia, Little Hans. Hans witnessed the collapse of a cart horse in a local park and thereafter became fearful of horses and heavily laden carts, either of which he worried might fall over at any moment.   Continue reading “27. Tony’s Hulk”

26. Hulk, The Angry Protector

6262695079_9f0f3f3b7b_bI’d forgotten about the Incredible Hulk, until discovering my own tumultuous fuming “monster” being mobilised whenever Max disobeyed my intentions for him.

Hulk, the green, muscle-laden golem of frustration and anger, curiously vulnerable in his tattered trousers and unshod feet, jumping or racing great distances over all sorts of terrain  to avoid harm, or fight off threats, roaring and bellowing with wounded anger. Continue reading “26. Hulk, The Angry Protector”

25. One Angry Dwarf

31841906835_70c1f636a0_b“What are stentors good for?” asks Vance Tartar as an opening salvo to his 420 page “biography” of this unicellular organism, which measures no more than a couple of millimetres in size, has zero social media presence, and probably lies outside the general ken of everyone apart from trained zoologists and geneticists.

Under the microscope, the stentor has a bit more presence: possessing the pleasing dimensions of a miniature trombone or trumpet, mainly transparent but with gold-leaf type encrustations on its surface, as if it were part of a faded 16th century fresco showing a clutch of angels taking part in a jam session. Continue reading “25. One Angry Dwarf”

24. Finding A Port In The Mu-Storm

30984759913_7c7f5cdc83_kMaster Z, a thousand years ago, would not have disagreed with this diagnosis, although being the behaviourist contrarian that he was, he would have probably broken into my case study with one of his pithy heckles or interventions.

Perhaps he would have been more comfortable with my explanation had I laid out the notion of distress tolerance with reference to the 4 “truths”, noble or not, as I’ve already alluded to earlier, handed down orally from the time of the Buddha, truths he would have carried with him as foundational to his understanding of our inner world.. Four truths, which perhaps like me, after 25 years of practice, still find myself struggling to remember and embody, due to some form of unconscious repression, or a porous memory. So he too might have created a mnemonic to help him remember these truths. Continue reading “24. Finding A Port In The Mu-Storm”

23. Mu(d)

31679592772_a3045274ae_kThere is an argument to be made that poor distress tolerance lies at the heart of all our mental and physical suffering, as well as all the disruptive or hurtful behaviours that manifest from this, which all too often stem from some form of anger-tinged emotion: resentment, impatience, enmity, exasperation, blame, jealousy, provocation, and also detachment and numbness, those emotional overdrive states, the fuse literally blown. Continue reading “23. Mu(d)”

22. Angry Mu

31715072341_3bf360ea85_bHow about a specific example of Anger-Provoking Mu? One of all too many from our first weeks together.

We are in Queensbury Park, near the school end, where there has been, for the last few days,  a large, rotund turd. Expelled, by the look of it, from the arse of Rottweiler Teddy, walked by his mardy teenage owner, hood up, jowls down, who snickers in a Beavis-‘n-Butthead manner when his friends are around that Rotty Ted would make a meal of Cocker Max, were the table set for interspecies snacking. Continue reading “22. Angry Mu”

21. The Narcissistic Sting of Mu

31459744470_67fb8d4f0d_bI wonder what Master Michele Doshin Girasole, my first guru, would say about this Mu project? I suspect it would be something along the lines of “MU!”

In the emotionally kinetic narrative of student-Master, patient-Psychoanalyst, child-Parent, it is important that the Capital-Letter bearer of his capital (age, wisdom, experience) frustrate the non-capitalised bearer until they too, as grit transmutes to immutable pearls, become capitalised in some shape or form. Continue reading “21. The Narcissistic Sting of Mu”

19. Mu-Wall

31709126712_cf7e6b2d9e_bI am writing all of this with Donald Trump, the reality television host, and very angry property tycoon, getting closer and closer to the Whitehouse. A few months before Max comes into my life, Trump announces that he has decided to run for President with this wall-building vow:

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Like a lot of spiritually-focused liberals, I don’t pay much attention to Trump’s bricks-and-mortar threats or promises when they are made. I am much more involved in my own wall, my more abstract Mu-wall, jutting out as it does from the depths of navel, 2,000 miles long, 10 feet high, or more, coated in anti-climb paint, topped with barbed wire and jagged glass shards. Continue reading “19. Mu-Wall”

18. Barriers/Boundaries

30307038412_33d69dd85b_bEvery morning Max tests the spatial dynamics of Mu.

At various points on the Queensbury Park track around which I coax him to follow me, he stops and watches me pushing on ahead. One hundred metres, two hundred, three. Sitting, watching, as I shrink for him, and him for me, ever further into the distance. Eventually, one of us relents. Either he does in resuming to follow, or I stop, turn, blow the whistle, hold up a bag of diced liver above my head enticing him back. Continue reading “18. Barriers/Boundaries”

15. Influence

31033904273_c9a43324ba_bOne choice we need to make as Parents/Gurus/Therapists (PG Tips) is to what extent we would like to fashion ourselves on those PG Tips who acted, unwittingly, or deliberately as our models. This transmission seems to follow relatively simple guidelines: if you loved your PG Tips, there will be a high propensity to emulate them either consciously or at a more subliminal level. Continue reading “15. Influence”

14. Surrender

31847870595_7ffac6b777_bMommy’s all right
Daddy’s all right
They just seem a little weird
Surrender, surrender
But don’t give yourself away
Hey, heeeeeey

CHEAP TRICK (Surrender)

“It has been said,” writes Emmanuel Ghent in his incredible paper Masochism, Submission, Surrender, “that there are no gurus, only disciples. The guru an illusion – an illusion which permits the disciple to yield, surrender false self, and therein have a chance at finding himself.” Continue reading “14. Surrender”

12. The Magus

31699742192_c60696ac31_bA book that became a kind of touchstone for me when I was living in Rome, and to which I return during these early weeks of parenthood, via an audio version, which whirrs away for days on end in my head, is John Fowles’ The Magus.

In it, another insular young man, Nicholas Urfe, travels to Greece to escape the end of a love affair, and perhaps too, his inability to love and commit himself fully to another person or project. Once there, he slips “down and down, and down” into a lonely, self-hating depression, until we find him, just eight chapters in, sitting in a gully behind the school with a twelve-bore shotgun borrowed off the gatekeeper, contemplating suicide: Continue reading “12. The Magus”

11. Parents

21117802926_a73c6d4a1b_kIf I use the word “parent”, here and in subsequent sections, to refer to my relationship with Max, is that OK?  For this is how I see myself, acknowledging at the same time all the cross-species small print that comes with this assertion.

I feel myself to be his parent also because I recognise that as soon as I give myself this status, I also place myself in the role of a creature who can frustrate as well as be frustrated by this much smaller, more helpless other-creature that I have chosen to take care of. Perhaps because of this care-taking contract. Perhaps also because of the ways in which I frustrated and was frustrated by my own parents. Continue reading “11. Parents”

10. Peering Under The Hood of Mu

gilbert-affect-regulation-systemsI often share with clients the following illustration of our three most important emotion regulation systems as initially set out by the psychologist Paul Gilbert. This is about as close as we might get, without you or I being neuroscientiests or car mechanics, to understanding what’s going on when we take a peek under the “hood” of our craniums. Continue reading “10. Peering Under The Hood of Mu”

9. Some Initial Helpings of Mu

img_2121What is a puppy, or a young baby for that matter, in his first few months of life, other than a kind of living, breathing Mu?

Compared to the adult dog we hope to have our enduring relationship with, the puppy is a bundle of deficiencies: not house-broken; not aware that chew toys are what we do our chomping on (rather than fingers or table legs); not able to be by himself for longer than an hour; not able to control his responses to other people, dogs, objects; not able to walk down the road at your side without bolting. Continue reading “9. Some Initial Helpings of Mu”

7. A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pts Three and Four: The Soul as Motivator & Penknife

3) The soul as Motivator

If for Plato the soul is imprisoned in the body, for Aristotle, the body is in the soul. Aristotle’s soul doesn’t just animate, it also has a kind of agency, moving the body towards an object of desire. Continue reading “7. A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pts Three and Four: The Soul as Motivator & Penknife”

6. A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pts One & Two: The Soul as Animator & Prisoner

1. The Soul as Animator
florencechoir_wpIgnorance is bliss is the byword that stands at the beginning of the soul’s story.

Everything living, for pre-Socratic writers and thinkers, has a life-force: pneuma (literally, breath, wind, that vital spirit ‘blown’ into us at birth), which also overlaps with psyche (breath, life, soul). Continue reading “6. A Brief (Metaphorical) History of The Soul, Pts One & Two: The Soul as Animator & Prisoner”

4. The Mu Koan

zen_dog (1)A man and his dog one day decided to go on a pilgrimage together.

They headed north towards Kuan yin yuan in the Chao province of China where the great Chan (Chinese Zen) master Zhaouzhou, aka Joshu, was said to reside.

The man hoped to have an audience with this venerable guru who was now in his nineties. He hoped to finally lay to rest some of his most pressing doubts and worries.

After months of arduous travel, he arrived at Zhaouzhou’s temple and sat down with the great teacher, his four-legged companion at his side.

Bowing, he put forward the question that he had been wrestling with for as long as he could remember: “Tell me,” he said, “does my dog have a soul?”

Zhaouzhou looked at the dog, then back to the pilgrim, and gave his reply: “No.” Continue reading “4. The Mu Koan”

3. Max


There were two of you, nestled together in a good-sized puppy coop at Hanwell’s pet store in Ealing: a boy and a girl. How could I possibly choose between one pup and another?

My previous dog had been a girl, and I was predisposed to repeat the choice, but you, Maxi, appealed to me as soon as I had seen your picture on the website the day before, something about your gentleness and equanimity which shone through right from the start.

I wasn’t thinking about souls or Mu at that point, but had I been focusing on the incorporeal essence of psychē (“life, spirit, consciousness”, derived from the verb “to cool, to blow”) which had been puffed or fanned into your chest on the 5th of July, 2015,  this might also have helped to explain why you rather than your sister came home with me.

In Zen Buddhism, a lot of emphasis is placed on the idea of wordless transmission, which is a notion that also underlies all of the koans. It’s not necessarily what is said, but rather the spirit (anima, psyche, that word again) in which the communication is conveyed. The way in which one puppy enacts with us rather than another. In my field of work (psychotherapy) we sometimes call this transference.

Transference is an unspoken, often unconscious communication between two people, or perhaps any two living beings. Words point to many things outside us, but transference always points within, and often back into the relationships we’ve had with significant others in our past.

Similarly with Zen. You get a lot of pointing in zen koans: illiterate monks pointing at the moon to show that words are like fingers which can only zero in on the truth but not embody it; or pointing to a water jar to underline some phenomenological insight; also fingers held in a certain way, knowing fingers, fingers that broadcast and enlighten. The underlying spirit is that if we can just somehow cut out all the background noise of meaning-making and focus on the soulful presence of another, or the world, be open to what might be come through, then the transmission we are seeking will become available to us.

We see this, as I’ve already mentioned, in the mythology of the Flower Sermon, in which Śākyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) tries to transmit prajñā (wisdom) to his disciples by holding up a white lotus flower, although only Mahākāśyapa, so the story goes, “gets it”. Whatever “it” is here. And when he gets it, he smiles.

Haven’t we all been in the position of holding up our single white lotus flower and maybe only finding one person on our wavelength, or nobody? One of course is more than enough for this kind of communication. The problem is when we feel there isn’t even one out there who can do this for us. But as long as you have a transmitter, the message, and a receiver who gets that message, maybe that’s potentially sufficient?

There is something intensely affecting and almost, well, romantic about the lotus flower sermon, even though it doesn’t occur in a romantic “love setting”. It has all the elements though of a love story, elements which now form the bedrock of our culture and all its dramatic arts, from soap operas to ballet.

Love stories are all about intuition, as opposed to reasoned or inferential thinking:

Our eyes met across a crowded room.

I knew s/he was The One.

I couldn’t leave that pet shop without taking him home with me

So after meeting this one, you Maxi, and a quick cuppa at a greasy spoon just across the road from pet shop with Ma, the decision was confirmed, and back I went to Hanwells, just 15 minutes before closing time, in order to fill in the necessary paperwork, buy some bedding, a toy chicken, and of course the de rigeur Kong, so as to take home this as-yet-unnamed little boy.

“What are you going to call him?” Ma asked.

A single syllable forms in my mouth: “Max, I’m going to call him Max.”

At the time, I didn’t know where that name had come from.

But now, I hear it:

Massimo => Maximus => Max.


Pronounced: mahs-SEE-mo

Meaning/origins: Italian form of MAXIMUS, derived from the Latin maximus “greatest”.

But maybe you were also named in homage to Ma herself, Max, Ma being my more emotionally attuned parent. If I was going to become a sort of “parent” to you, this is the sort of parent I wanted to be.

At that moment though you were just-Max. But only for a day. Soon thereafter, and in the weeks to come you would also generate variations to your name, like Maxi, Maxi-Pax, Maxitude, Maxela, Indigo (especially when being put into you crate: “In you go, Indigo”), Bojo, Bowie, Bojus (as in: beautiful and gorgeous), and also just plain-‘n-simple Bo.

All variations on a theme, on a name, the kind of variations we play on puppy and baby names. The theme being? Well, love I guess. For when I write and say all the above names, don’t they reverberate in my heart with love, but also with another monosyllabic word, that of Yes.



Where does Mu fit into all of this? Mu of course being a word that in that Japanese means No. Where to find the Mu in Max, the no in yes, the hate in love?

It goes something like this.

2. Michele, Silvia, Massimo

dariogMichele cut an impressive and striking figure, having a thick shock of jet-black hair and a warrior’s beard. He was particularly impressive when sitting, chest-hoisted on his cushion in zazen-meditation, droopy-sleeved Koromo robes gathered around him. In this way, he resembled nothing less than the epitome of spiritual ardency. Continue reading “2. Michele, Silvia, Massimo”

1. Centro Zen l’Arco (Rome)

4647351018_da7ea711a8When I moved to Rome in 1995 after breaking up with Ida, apart from my work — writing in the mornings, teaching in the afternoons — I was alone again, and feeling the wrench.

Yes, there was plenty to explore in the eternal city, and for the first time in my life I lived within walking distance of all the main attractions, but there was also only so many times one could walk around the Colosseum, or lounge in the parks and gardens, reading, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know how long it took, maybe a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but I soon started to realise that if you want something to happen, you’ve got to go out and make it happen. Continue reading “1. Centro Zen l’Arco (Rome)”