Thursday, 28 July 2011

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Michael Heald


Q: What are your main interests in The Moving World?

In this book I am primarily interested in the way that meditation can change one’s experience of self and world.


In my previous work I have been strongly drawn to experiences of impermanence, interconnectedness and the paradoxes and inadequacies of selfhood. An abiding interest has also been the apparent instability of human goodness. In this book, I have turned to face these issues directly, as it were, embracing a traditional technique, Vipassana, to which they are central.


Q: Author Tim Parks calls your poetry ‘an invitation to Vipassana’. Can you tell us about the role of Vipassana meditation in your life? How and when did you start practising?

I have always been interested in Eastern cultures. Over the years, I adopted many of their principles, and tried meditation from time to time, based on my reading. About ten years ago, I decided it was time to learn meditation properly. I looked around for a short course. When I came across Vipassana, in the tradition of U Ba Khin, I was puzzled to find that a beginner could only take a longer course of ten days. After reconciling myself to that, I booked in for a ten-day course in the hills outside Melbourne.


I went there with many preconceptions and illusions, not the least of which was that I would be able to pick and choose when I wanted to sit, rather than stick to the rigorous timetable, which involved rising at 4 a.m. and sitting for a total of ten hours per day. There was no coercion at the course, and one could take short breaks at will, but it was, nevertheless, a very challenging experience.


I had also supposed that I would be able to use whichever meditation technique I wanted. However, we were taught a very specific technique, that of paying attention to bodily sensations, and there was an emphasis on the importance of a sound and consistent technique. The need for the ten consecutive days of practice, without talking, in order to allow the mind to quieten down a little, and in order for concentration to be mustered to the point where the sensations could be held onto long enough to be observed, became very apparent. In fact, this experience of attaining, albeit to a very modest degree, a level of concentration which is not really available in ordinary life, which allows the perception of processes always present but beneath awareness, was terribly significant for me. It showed me, I suppose, that meditation is real, and that it is different from other ways of perceiving, other ways of knowing. Giving a sense of this reality and difference, I would say, is a major driver, now, of my artistic and also critical work.


I have completed quite a few courses since then, and meditation is part of my daily routine. I find that the technique has enormous benefits for daily life, in terms of getting beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the small self or ego. For me, too, it is a way of exploring facets of existence I have always been intensely concerned with.


I also feel that meditation has world-changing, as well as self-changing potential. I know that this can sound Romantic or triumphalist or utopian, and I don’t underestimate the intractability of social structures. However, such structures are composed of and operated by human minds. And in this era when our very survival as a species is threatened, as well as the survival of the other creatures and ecosystems which have supported us, I don’t think that it’s a time to shy away from large aspirations. So meditation, for me, is also a vital part of my social engagement: part of the aspiration to reduce suffering at large, not just my own!


It is probably also worth saying that I generally do not call myself Buddhist. This is partly because it is not necessary for a meditator to be such. Also, the word ‘Buddhist’ can refer to a great variety of things, many of which I would have no problem in identifying with, but also including, perhaps, beliefs or practices which do not sit well with meditative principles. However, it is often difficult to avoid using the word ‘Buddhist’, and on the whole I don’t think that is something to be overly worried about.


Q: The collection unfolds in a way that feels organic, almost inevitable. Did you write the poems in their published order or did the order evolve after you had finished writing?

I’m very pleased you find that the collection reads in that way. In fact, the poems are not presented in the order of composition (which would present a problem for me anyway, since I am always working on many poems at the same time). Yet I feel that the principles of sequencing and grouping I have used are to an extent organic. A broad framework is that of the journal: a speaker reporting on his experience as it proceeds, a record of the spiritual quest, so to speak. Within that, the second part, ‘the stunning serene dis- / integration of daylight’, presents the immediate experience of sitting in meditation. In the third part, ‘to point at what I’ve seen’, the speaker self-consciously employs analogies to illustrate how key philosophical issues manifest themselves in meditation. And in the fourth part, ‘actual light’, he addresses directly some of the terms commonly used to refer to meditative experience, seeking to explore their adequacy. In the fifth part, ‘movement that has never / opened its eyes’, the speaker turns his attention outward, considering the social and domestic worlds in the light of his meditative experience. The final part, ‘the moving world’, contains poems in which Vipassana itself is not an explicit component, although there are, of course, continuities of sensibility. The poems in this last part tend to proceed through contemplations of the mineral, vegetable and animal-human worlds.


So the sequence doesn’t proceed in a simply chronological way - the very first part, ‘that fabled direction / inward’, is a kind of preface to what is already known about the journey and the poems – but does perhaps trace a partly temporal process of first encountering experience, then reflecting upon it, and then applying it. Some of the poems also emerged in dialogue with that evolving structure.


Q: Some poems in the collection, like ‘Speaking’, deal with the inadequacy of language in mediating experience. How do you reconcile this inadequacy with the act of writing poetry?

Yes, this is a significant issue. I think this is partly why Robert Gray and Tim Parks refer to the poems’ ‘daring’ and ‘ambition’. I am very conscious that meditative experience raises problems for language, both in terms of how it can be articulated, and in terms of whether it should be.


Meditative experience is difficult for language to deal with because most language has a metaphoric base originating in sensory experience, and also utilises many conceptual dualisms. In meditation, the containments and logics of those two procedures tend not to apply. To give just one example, the physical and mental domains, during meditation, become more difficult to distinguish from each other.


It is important to be aware, however, that I say (in the prefatory poems ‘Speaking’ and ‘Listening’, for example) that I am not trying to recreate my meditative experience in the reader. I say that this is not possible. I am, rather, attempting to articulate my ownresponse to that experience. This renders the linguistic challenge more manageable, and is also the way in which I reconcile my act of writing with the principle, which I fully endorse, that meditative experience must be had at first hand.


That being said, I do inevitably need to evoke something of the quality of meditative experience in expressing a response to it, and so the linguistic dilemma is not entirely avoided. However, to my mind, the articulation of experience to some extent beyond conceptual classification has always been a major part of poetry’s endeavour. And so I feel that the challenge here is perhaps different in degree, but not in kind, from that which most poets face. I also believe that one of the most valuable aspects of poetic language is to serve as a reminder that our namings are always to some extent provisional and inadequate, rather than being a sure basis on which to understand and manipulate the world.


I would also say that, in terms of my approach to language, it may be conspicuous that these poems do not express what the critic Stephen Burt, to paraphrase him slightly, calls the pathos of lost epistemologies, by which is meant the mood of despair and disorientation often resulting from postmodern skepticisms about language’s, and indeed the mind’s, ability to know and understand the world. Even though my work is acutely conscious of the sources of such skepticism, and is in accord, in a way, with approaches to understanding which recognise the limits of language and of certain mental procedures, nevertheless in these poems about meditation, it is more a case of the wonder of epistemologies found than the pathos of those lost.


Q: In the book’s acknowledgements you mention poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Thomas Hardy. Can you tell us how their poetry has influenced your work?

Hopkins is a poet whose work often seems to deal with kinds of experience not dissimilar to those yielded by meditation. His line from ‘God’s Grandeur’, for example, ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’, which I refer to in the ‘Vedana’ sequence, could hardly be bettered as an evocation of the profoundly tender and pristine contact with the world which meditation begins to enable. Yet also, of course, Hopkins seemed unable to integrate or stabilise his experiences. I find that the same thing is true of many other Western artists, and this phenomenon is one of my major interests.


With regard to Thomas Hardy, he is someone I read a great deal of when I was developing as a poet. His principle that one must take ‘a full look at the Worst’, a full account of the harshest realities in forming one’s artistic vision, which I refer to in my poem ‘The Full Look’, is analogous, for me, to the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist tradition, which is an acknowledgement of the existence of suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, in our lives. This is the starting point of the meditative quest. It is a much misunderstood principle, often interpreted as a pessimistic vision of life, when in fact it is both profoundly insightful as an analysis of the human psyche, and also profoundly optimistic, because it forms the basis for positive action towards addressing one’s own, and other people’s suffering. As a poet, then, I felt that Hardy could be trusted to have made this basic acknowledgement, and that his poems, therefore, offered genuine, hard-won insight and hope. I felt that his being labeled as a ‘gloomy’ poet was as fundamentally mistaken as Buddhism being labeled ‘pessimistic’.


Q: What do you hope this book will give its readers?

I am hoping to give readers a sense of the actuality, the physicality, of meditation, in contrast to the abstract, dualistic descriptions which tend to be used. And also to bring meditation clear of the often rather literal-minded religiosity, and sentimentalised spirituality of our times. Perhaps, rather than ‘kitchen-sink realism’, I could say I am attempting ‘meditation-cushion realism’, if ‘cushion’ wasn’t too closely associated with ‘armchair’! But anyone who has meditated properly knows that it’s anything but a passive, uninvolved leisure activity.


Often, also, the terms which are used to indicate meditative experience are negations: emptiness, detachment, non-self, and so on. These terms are highly inadequate, misleading, and of course off-putting. They are often the result of poor translation, associated with a lack of actual meditative practice. In this book I am hoping to breathe some life back into such references, and thereby change the linguistic image, if you like, of meditation.


I am also hoping to give readers a sense of the potentials which are made available by meditative practice, potentials for reassessing and re-energising one’s life. And to give a sense of how some perspectives and attitudes which are entrenched in our culture are not as solidly based or inevitable as they might appear. I’m referring to attitudes towards despair and consolation, towards suffering and death, towards the natural world, and towards the possibilities for change, for example.


And I am, of course, primarily trying to convey my own sense of wonder. In this respect, my aim is that of most poets: to express that which has struck me with extraordinary force.


Q: What are your current or future writing projects?

I do feel that the kinds of experience which are dealt with in The Moving World will continue to form a major part of my work. Indeed, I have already written pieces which can add to the ‘Vedana’ sequence, making use of different metaphoric possibilities. I have also recently finished more poems similar to those in the second part of the book, which try to render significant modulations of consciousness occurring in meditation. And I think that the process of relating this experience to events in the world at large is very much an ongoing process, which will produce more poems.


I am also very interested at present in exploring the nature of certain modes of being which are sometimes seen as opposed to the meditative endeavour. I’m referring, for example, to animistic and shamanistic modes, and even perhaps ‘artistic’ or imaginative modes, which are often associated with traditional indigenous cultures and with deep ecological orientations. These are often characterised as being based on an emotional or intuitive responsiveness and participatory openness to the world, as opposed to what is perceived as the renunciatory, cool, disciplined, ‘rational’, and even perhaps ‘unnatural’ procedures of meditation. I feel that this opposition is illusory, arising from dualisms around mind / body, spirit / matter, reason / emotion, which ultimately don’t hold. So I’m very interested to explore how these different modes are interconnected: to discover forms of synthesis which could also find poetic expression.



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